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Solidarity Opinions

QUIET VIOLENCE: WHY THE UK CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM IS MORE RACIST THAN THE US

By Alexandra Williams.

The UK criminal justice system overrepresents Black people more than the US criminal justice system, that has in recent years become known globally for its racist police brutality. If you compare UK prisons to US prisons, you will find Black people are more overrepresented in the UK. That might be hard to believe, but it’s true.

Racial inequalities in the criminal justice system are evident at every level. When we discuss the criminal justice system, this doesn’t simply refer to the police, but includes stop and searches and arrests by the police, prosecutions, convictions, custodial demands, custodial sentences and prison population.

Of all ethnic groups, Black people are the most overrepresented group in the entire system. In the last census, Black people made up 3% of the population, yet represent anywhere between 10% and 22% of those who are currently within or moving through the criminal justice system. White people, however, are under-represented at every, single stage. Doesn’t seem right, does it?

According to the Ministry of Justice, Black people make up 4 times more of the prison population than that of the general population. Despite our reputation as having a ‘less racist’ justice system, this means the overrepresentation of Black people is higher in the UK than in the USA.

There are many reasons why this is likely to be new information to you. The USA has the largest prison population in the world, still uses capital punishment, and their police officers have more guns than ours do. This leads to more media attention, more public violence, and more vocal criticism. But behind closed doors and rhetoric of democracy and justice, our ‘more racist’ friends across the pond are not actually the ones with the highest overrepresentation of Black people in their prisons. We are.

At this point, you may expect a rebuttal from the more right-wing inclined, about how maybe Black people just commit more crimes? About ‘Black’ gangs in London and the cultural accuracy of Top Boy? Of course, criminal activity has long been linked to inequality, with the Black population and communities in the UK facing lower levels of education, poorer housing and lower incomes. However, this explanation can’t explain why Black people have longer sentences and harsher punishments compared to White people.

These issues are structural. It’s important to remember that there is a long history of Black people being viewed as inferior and innately criminal in the UK and beyond. Stereotypes of ethnic minorities, perpetuated by the media and contemporary right-wing political rhetoric, paint Black men as criminally inclined, drug-abusing and violent, and Asian men as disorderly, radical, culturally separatist and inclined towards Islamic terrorism. These stereotypes help cement the public linkage between violence and non-white people. These views, in turn, impact the people who work in the criminal justice system, and how they treat POC people as a result. Not just limited to police officers, PPCs, judges, lawyers and civil servants are all complicit. When a person’s criminal sentence is left in the hands of a jury, when ordinary people decide whether someone is guilty or not, these stereotypes take on a real and violent reality that makes or destroys lives, and almost always discriminates, whether consciously or not.

Calling out institutional racism is not the same as accusing all police officers of being racist. But we can’t get away from the fact we have a problem in the police force itself too.

Many pieces of research have found evidence of a racist culture in the police towards ethnic minorities, which should not be a surprise to anyone who has listened to POC experiences with the police. You just need to look at the stop and search data, where Black people are overrepresented by a factor of 7. Police officers choose who to stop and search, and have been granted allowances to make it easier to do so at their often discriminatory discretion. Ask any young, black man who has grown up in London whether they’ve been stopped and searched, and it will sharply contrast the response of White men living in the same city, in the same boroughs.

The government and leadership of police forces need to take a central role in tackling institutional racism if it is ever going to change. Institutional racism is defined as a collective failure towards people based on their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen in discriminatory processes, attitudes and behaviour, that has manifested in the culture we see today. Embedded in the structure of our criminal justice system, everyone at all rungs of the institution must take responsibility for our own biases, working to identify them, change them, and calling out racism.

How we fix this is for another article and is not a question one person can answer alone. But I’m sure you’ll agree it must be answered and is a tragic problem that can no longer be ignored.

Alexandra holds a BA in Applied Social Sciences from the University of York and recently completed an MSc in Gender, Equalities and Policy from the London School of Economics. She previously worked in political campaigns and since finishing her Master’s works on campaigns and policy in the housing sector. Alexandra’s academic interests have often focused on ethnic and racial inequalities; with her recent dissertation focusing on how Nigerian women’s reproductive choices are subject to the UK Department for International Developments’ population control agenda and their cooptation of feminism.

Sources used: 

Tonry, M. (1997) Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: Comparative and Cross-national Perspectives. Chicago: The University of Chicago. Phillips, C. (2010).

Institutional Racism and Ethnic Inequalities: An Expanded Multilevel Framework. Journal of Social Policy, 40(1), pp.173-192. 

Young, J. (2007). The Vertigo of Late Modernity, London: Sage. Macpherson of Cluny, Sir. (1999).

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Cm. 4262–1. London: Home Office. [Online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-stephen-lawrenceinquiry. Phillips, C. and Bowling, B. (2007)

Ethnicities, racism, crime and criminal justice, in M. Maguire, R. Morgan and R. Reiner (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Criminology, fourth edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sveinsson, K. (2008).

A Tale of Two Englands: ‘Race’ and Violent Crime in the Media. London: The Runnymede Trust. Barrett, G., Fletcher, S. and Patel, T. (2014).

Black minority ethnic communities and levels of satisfaction with policing: Findings from a study in the north of England. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 20 4, 14(2), pp. 196-215. 

Long, L. and Joseph-Salisbury, R. (2018). Black mixed-race men’s perceptions and experiences of the police. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 25 1, 42(2), pp. 198-215. 

Ministry of Justice (2019) and the Lammy Review (2017) https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/race-and-the-criminal-justice-system-statistics-2018.

Rollock, N. (2009). The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry 10 Years On: An Analysis of the Literature, London: Runnymede Trust. https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/race-report-statistics

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Solidarity Opinions

‘A Woman Wearing a Mask’

‘There’s something about a woman wearing a mask,’ says the sixty-something-year-old man after I scanned his shopping through the self-scan machine for him.

Prior to this we had had a laugh about how the machines don’t work; ‘This machine doesn’t like me,’; ‘These machines don’t like anyone.’ He was a normal, friendly, chatty customer and it was a refreshing break from the moaning pensioners and impatient technophobes.

So I had to ask him to repeat what he said. ‘Excuse me?’; ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘just, there’s something about a woman in a mask.’ I look quizzical, and then realise I don’t have the energy to quiz this man anyway. Queue fake guffaw-half-smile that doesn’t reach my eyes (my PPE most likely prevented any expression of emotion at all). I walk away.

Who knew my personal protective equipment could be so sexually alluring? Who knew my efforts to prevent the transmission of Covid-19 could, in fact, turn a sixty-something-year-old man on?

In fairness, I don’t know if this guy was necessarily being a creep. But, then again, I can’t think of a single reason to say this to me. If it was a reference to something else, I didn’t get it. If it was an attempt at a joke, I didn’t find it funny.

So it gets added to the list of times where I simply do my job, am a polite and kind individual who aims to make customers feel attended to and at ease, and I end up being made to feel icky by a weird comment.

This instance took me back to the time a frail old man in his seventies (at least) hobbled up to me, leaning on his trolley as he went to exit the store. He says something to me but his mask is preventing me from hearing it. I say, ‘Excuse me?’, and he removes his mask and leans in close to my face. Let’s not worry about the global pandemic happening around us, for this old man has objectifying to do! He says, ‘I said, you’ve got a cracking figure!’. I look at him, and I look to my left to his wife, oblivious, continuing to walk away. I say, ‘Okay.’ And he hobbles off, smiling, pleased with himself, as if he’s done a good deed.

Thanks old man. Now I’m conscious of my tucked in shirt – am I drawing attention to my bum? Or is the shirt too tight across my boobs? I can’t really change that as work only gave me one shirt anyway, and if anything it’s quite baggy. I analyse my own behaviours. I had been stood watching the self-scan area, with my back against the wall. I hadn’t been bent over or flouncing around. It felt as though I had been concealing myself against the wall, which is something that many of us women become accustomed to doing. We shrink, we cower, we look away. And then, when we least expect it (because we’ve done everything humanly possible to prevent it), someone makes a weird, dirty, uncalled for comment. Why must we work so hard to prevent something that some creep is going to come along and do anyway?

There are many things I could call for men to do. Stop assaulting us, stop raping us, stop murdering us, stop hurting us. But this minefield feels too dangerous for me to try and cross. So, for now, this is what I ask of you, men. Men who make comments, men who don’t. Men who are polite and men who are crude. Men who set out to make women feel uncomfortable or icky or exposed, and men who just say stupid things without realising the misogyny they have internalised.

I want you to stop calling me love, darling, sweetheart, chick, babe. Instead, and I don’t think this is too much to ask, can you just call me mate? Mate is universal. It is un-sexualised and it is non-threatening.

There is something in me that even feels comforted by a middle-aged man calling me mate. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of something my Dad would say. There is something platonic about it. It’s friendly and shows care in its own peculiar way. But most importantly, the term ‘mate’ for me is a safe zone. It shows that the utterer views me as their equal. Or at least, they are not seeing me as a pair of legs, or boobs, or as a blonde or a sex object or even, really, as a woman.

‘There’s something about seeing a mate in a mask…’ See, doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Author: Becca Moody

Becca is a philosophy graduate, comedy journalist and artist. During the Covid-19 pandemic she has been spending most of her time working in a supermarket. Her experiences as a reluctant retail worker have involved run-ins with impatience, frustration and ignorance, mixed in with a fair few misogynistic comments. This has unsurprisingly been inspiring her writing no end.

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Solidarity Opinions

What happens if we flip the stats? A thought experiment By Molly Hugh

‘4.7% of the UK’s most powerful jobs held by BAME individuals’

‘95.3% of the UK’s most powerful jobs held by white individuals’

The above statements are the same statistic. Semantically, they are very different. What happens when we flip the figure? Do feelings of warmth, hostility, neutrality or interest attach themselves more to one than the other?

In their clinical directness, statistics often serve as catalysts for change. Research by Green Park released during the summer in the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests sparked a wave of renewed outrage towards systemic racism from leading news outlets in the UK. ‘Just 52 out of 1099 of the most powerful jobs in the country held by ethnic minority individuals’, declared the diversity consultancy. ‘Non-white’ or ‘BAME’ individuals fill 4.7% of top jobs, media giants echoed.

What do terms like ‘BAME’ and ‘non-white’ really mean? How can human beings be surgically divided into pre-defined categories?

Setting out to create some diversity and inclusion infographics, my impulse was to supersize such statistics for eye-catching effect. But a representation rabbit hole burrowed its way ahead of me: What do terms like ‘BAME’ and ‘non-white’ really mean? Are these groupings helpful? How can human beings with such a diversity of ethnicities, cultures, connections, lifestyles and opinions possibly be divided so surgically into opposing, pre-defined categories?

I don’t dispute the occasional efficacy of categories and groupings. In the case of Green Park’s research, they reveal nationwide discrimination in one swift blow. There is no denying the injustice they pinpoint. However, they also enact a damaging erasure and homogenisation of millions of people.

A recent survey released by Inc Arts UK under the name of #BAMEOver set out to try to answer the multifaceted question, ‘What do we want to be called?’. The statement reads, ‘We do not want to be grouped into a meaningless, collective term, or reduced to acronyms’. Instead, the 1,000 people asked settled on a simple request for specificity: ‘Call us by our name. Be specific. Understand the terms you use’.

Naming those who have for centuries gone unnamed is a basic act of solidarity.

With specificity in mind, I played around with the likes of ‘4.7% of top jobs [in the UK] held by African, South, East, and South East Asian diaspora people’. While wordier, this was certainly better than the negative connotations of ‘non-white’ or the othering tone of acronyms and terms such as ‘ethnic minority’ (and, as #BAMEOver point out, ‘minority’ is hardly accurate).

An idea occurred to me: what would it mean to transfer the statistic’s emphasis? How about: ‘95.3% of leading UK jobs are held by white people’? Wouldn’t the Green Park statistic, thus reversed, be equally as impactful?

Like many daydreams, this thought experiment is riddled with ambivalence. The homogenisation of a large group of people under the meaningful, and simultaneously meaningless, signifier ‘white’ is also not without its issues.

Equally, the re-centring of whiteness, and subsequent omission of blackness, is hardly a step in the right direction. Naming those who have for centuries gone unnamed is a basic act of solidarity.

Perhaps the difference is that whiteness is the default subjectivity in the UK, yet is rarely understood as such. Whiteness imbues most institutions and spaces, becoming unremarkable in its portrayed normalcy. It ceases to be seen as a racial marker, invisible to those who inhabit it, yet inherently exclusive to those who do not. To Sara Ahmed, whiteness is an ‘absent presence… against which all other colours are measured as forms of deviance’. 

So, by flipping the statistics, do we highlight the colour of whiteness and its place in the spectrum of ethnicity? In a world schooled to emphasise the skin colour of some in order to normalise that of others, the very utterance of whiteness reveals it as a shade that can also be described.

This thought experiment catches its breath on this valuable moment of ambivalence. In a terrain so nuanced and eclectic, a one-size-fits-all rule is illogical and, quite frankly, lazy. While grouping together those who do not feel kinship will always be hazardous, a thoughtful contextualisation of every statistic and an awareness of the people it seeks to represent will allow for slightly fairer outcomes. Let’s calm our numerical frenzy and remember the world of individuals crammed into these handfuls of digits.

Molly is a diversity and inclusion specialist and business partner at DiverseJobsMatter. She holds an MSc in Gender Studies from LSE and a BA in Language & Culture from UCL, where she was awarded a place on the Dean’s List for her dissertation on violence against women in Latin America. Originally from Leeds, Molly grew up in southern Spain and has since lived in Argentina, Chile and Barcelona.

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Solidarity Opinions

Bad bitches, fuck boys, and dating after COVID-19

“No one really says, ‘I want to cuddle with you’ or ‘I want to spend time with you’ …Everything is…just about sex, everyone is supposed to be hypersexual and that’s the expectation.”

‘Chis’ in “Gen Z dating culture defined by sexual flexibility and complex struggles for intimacy” by Treena Orchard

Being an old Gen Z, I’ve grown up with a culture of bad bitches and fuck boys. Over and over I’ve heard the narrative of how disposable people are, and that you’d do well not to get attached if you want to avoid heartache (or ghosting). The culture of bad bitches and fuck boys has drilled in me countless times that if I’m not interested in hooking up, I’m boring, and guilty of a generational crime of preferring romance to getting railed. 

Quick-turnaround dating and short-term commitment have been defining features of dating for Gen Z, and I think it’s left little space for those who feel alienated by this culture. Ace folk, survivors, and those of us with abandonment issues can often find ourselves a bit lost in the land of Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. Personally, a fear of abandonment and/or emotional pain has largely dictated my behaviour on dating apps. When rejection is only a quick swipe away, assuming anything long-term is bound to leave you hurt. However, you have to put yourself out there and date, and today you don’t date people in your town. No, with globalisation and technological advancement, you date online to filter out the people you don’t want. 

This non-committal dating culture is a phenomenon of our digital age and interestingly, has contributed to Gen Z being one of the loneliest generations ever. With many going into their late twenties without genuine romantic experiences, the combination of indifferent dating and loneliness has made me wonder how growing up with online dating and its greater risks of abandonment has affected our perceptions overall, and whether this has changed during COVID-19. 

Wanting to find out what my peers think, I did a quick Instagram story poll for my followers. Trying to scope out what people feel about dating right now, I was surprised to find that overall, there’s ambivalence. People aren’t particularly happy nor strongly disappointed with today’s ‘distant dating’. Actually, the poll ended up showing a 50/50 divide on whether dating during COVID-19 has been better or worse for people. This surprised me, as I’ve always understood dating culture to be centred around hookups, and without in-person contact, I assumed there would be large dissatisfaction. But on the contrary, mindless swiping was described as ‘a game’ and labelled a ‘good distraction’ during times of COVID-19, and because you couldn’t meet in person, there was less pressure of commitment. Subsequently, people were left with little options, and talking to people online wasn’t a bad one.  

I personally spent all of the first UK-wide lockdown ‘talking’ to someone, and as a person who gets anxious about meeting new people, the lack of in-person interaction at an early stage helped me get over those anxieties, and let me create that meaningful conversation without the pressure of quickly moving things to real life. It let me participate in dating culture in a new way which was less exclusive of my natural orientation towards long-term relationships, whilst still remaining seemingly non-committal. My experience isn’t uncommon, and I’m left wondering if COVID dating will lead to long-lasting changes to our dating culture, and allow for more quality interaction over quantity. (Down with body counts?)

During the small hours of the day I often ask myself whether if questioning dating culture is a feminist intervention as today’s culture is indeed breaking apart institutions such as the family unit by rejecting the need for romance. By prioritising physical pleasure we are prioritising ourselves and not society’s need for a reproduction of labour forces (children that take over when we’re gone). However, to what extent are we harmed by the dismissal of emotion and the inevitable affective reaction many of us have to dating. The depiction of ‘catching feelings’ as a sign of weakness worries me insofar as to how it enables suppression of emotion and increasing levels of troubling mental health. Not to mention how it produces a breeding ground for trauma and development of attachment issues. I still don’t know how the feminist in me feels about questioning bad bitches and fuck boys, but I do know that the queer activist in me screams for representation of diverse desires. It screams for increased awareness of the spectrums of sexuality and romantic orientation. It screams for a space where I can be whoever I want to without being labelled “a feminist who just needs a good fuck”… as if my opinions and preferences are simply derived from a lack of mediocre sex with a boy I don’t know.

This is not to say that bad bitches can’t keep sleeping with as many people as they want, because trust me if I could participate in that culture, I probably would. Instead, it just means that we could potentially move to a more equal playing field, and be more open, honest and kind about our desires for more meaningful and lasting connections. Instead of labelling guys who like girls ‘simps’ or ‘whipped’, I think we need to appreciate the diversity in romantic and sexual preferences and stop the rhetoric of “you need to have fun while you’re young”. Happiness and ‘fun’ isn’t one size fits all, and creating a dating culture that over- glorifies one night stands leaves too many people behind. 

Dating during COVID has both highlighted fixations with hookups as well as our need for intimacy, and hopefully, our pandemic experiences will lead us to a culture less concerned with ghosting and more concerned with connections. 

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Solidarity Opinions

Black British rappers don’t have the luxury to not be political

By Tzeitel Degiovanni

Dave the rapper’s stunningly poignant performance of his single Black at the 2020 BRIT Awards last week exposed something deeply concerning about pockets of the British population. The 300+ Ofcom complaints received following Stormzy and Dave’s performances reveals a sad truth – you can sing for us, you can dance for us, you can win awards for us…but don’t you dare criticise us.

What the comments indicate, and what hundreds of angry tweets exploding on twitter that day highlight, is that many white Britons refuse to accept the voices, experiences and struggles of non-white bodies. And what they absolutely refuse to accept or acknowledge is how their privilege allows them to do that. White people want their music, their performance, their style… but they don’t want their voices, their experiences or their politics.

Take the example of this young white British man on Twitter. About the performance, he wrote

“I don’t like Stormzy because he started talking about politics. I now don’t like Dave because he did the same. What happened to Uk rap/grime? Keep politics out of music”

Indeed, what did happen to UK rap/grime scene? Clearly one thing is that its roots in jungle, dancehall and hip-hop, all of which developed out of Black British, Caribbean and African-American communities respectively, have been erased by many listeners. I thought about how privileged this young man was, to request these successful Black rappers ‘keep politics out of music’. Rappers who were born and raised in London boroughs like Croydon and Brixton to Ghanaian and Nigerian parents, their lives shaped and influenced by their experiences as young Black men in communities directly affected by problematic race relations for decades.

White listeners often express feeling ‘hard’ when listening to grime. It is often angry, emotionally loaded and stirring. To let you in on a secret, this isn’t because Black people are naturally angry. Paul Gilroy, British historian and founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Racism at University College London, articulates how Black music possesses an inner philosophical doctrine and morality that confronts power with truth, helping to ‘develop black struggles by communicating information, organising consciousness’ and creating new forms of political agency. Grime has its own similar inner philosophy and ethics encoded within its aggressive sound.

Emerging in the council estates of East London boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney in the early 2000s, where 42% of the Capital’s social housing was located, the birth of this genre coincided with the New Labour’s plans to regenerate the city. Done by developing new residential apartments, intensifying the city’s CCTV surveillance and criminalising non-criminal behaviours (i.e. ‘hanging around’) through punitive measures like ASBOs and police dispersal powers, black working-class neighbourhoods were exponentially targeted. The effects of these were crippling, felt for decades to come.

Between April 2018 and March 2019, you were over 9 times more likely to be subjected to stop and search as a Black individual than if you were white; with the 3 Black ethnic groups having the highest rates of stop and search out of all 16 individual ethnic groups.[1] Figures released by the Home Office showed that 12% of incidents involving the use of force by police were against Black people, who make up only 3.3% of the population[2]. A disproportionately high stop and search rate, followed by a disproportionately high violence rate, and it doesn’t take too long to piece together the dangerous and racist reality. To add insult to injury, austerity measures over the past 15 years have left these same communities in destitution and despair, with Theresa May’s cuts on public services in housing, education and healthcare impacting the lives of grime’s artists and listeners the most. Over these two decades, from 2002 to 2018, no more than 6.6% of Black Britons have made it into further education (2017/18), compared with a white British rate that has never dropped below 76.8%.

This reality is important for understanding grime musically, politically, and as a youth culture. Having been described as a ‘sound of disillusionment, resentment and despair’ (Collins), its lyrics are inscribed with the reality of young Black working-class life in Britain, shaped by intersecting forms of social exclusion in education, housing, employment opportunities and racist policing. This is fundamentally what the young man on Twitter missed when he complained that his easy listening experience was interrupted by politics, and something that non-Black people need to be aware of when listening to rap and grime for pleasure. When blasting it through a gym set or listening to the Top Boy soundtrack on the commute to work, we simply cannot complain when the Black artists we are listening to, in a genre they created, start talking about their Black experiences. We enjoy these sounds whilst being totally unaffected by their political reality, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have one. Histories of origin are histories of power, and in colonialist tradition, we see people continue to take what they want from other cultures and complain about and erase what they don’t. As Dave aptly raps in Black, “You don’t know the truth about your race cos they[re] erasing it…”.

For its main practitioners (marginalised young Black men) grime is a liminal space where they can express their frustration and growing pains of impoverished adolescence with limited resources and create music that represents their lives – played out in youth clubs, on street corners and around council estates. This is why artists like Dave passionately describe life under a Tory regime in their music; narrating harrowing stories of his mother, an NHS worker “struggling to get by”, with May’s policies having “brought the heart of the nation to its knees”. Workers are “underpaid, understaffed, overworked and overseen by people who can’t ever understand how it feels to live life like you and me”. Black British rappers, and especially Black British rap and grime artists, simply do not have the luxury to not be political. And for them to use their elevated platforms in the UK music industry to shed light on issues that have shaped their own lives, as well as the lives of their communities and those who still face socio-economic barriers, is something that should be applauded.

Anyone who cannot see this, or who doesn’t want to, is wrapped up in a privilege so white it is blinding. A privilege rooted in a position unaffected by and unfeeling towards racial inequality or social injustice, both personally and communally. To demand these artists not draw from their own experiences, not to make music about their communities and not to use their platform to unsilence the silenced experiences of racism in Britain is one of the grossest privilege and disillusionment. And to claim that they themselves are being racist, like the 300+ Ofcom complainers did on the night of the BRIT awards, demonstrates the urgency of the vast re-education needed in Britain if it is ever going to claim openness and inclusivity, or that it is ‘the least racist country’ in the world. As Dave said, the least racist is still racist, and that’s still a problem.

[1] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/crime-justice-and-the-law/policing/stop-and-search/latest#by-ethnicity

[2] ibid

#BRITAwards #Stormzy #Dave #UKgrime #Ukrap #austerity #politics

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Solidarity Opinions

Body Over Mind?

‘Femininity as spectacle is something in which virtually every woman is required to participate.’

Sandra Bartky

Human bodies are under constant scrutiny to look, behave and take up space in a particular way. Growing up girl, I have experienced first-hand the pressures that are placed on women to carry out the social ideal of femininity. For as long as I can remember, I have been conditioned to believe that I must look a specific way, and if I fail to fit this prescribed criteria then I am ugly and therefore unsuccessful and hold less value. The media has consistently promoted a particular image of perfection to me, something that I should aim towards embodying – the conventionally attractive woman. Supermodels and social media influencers are celebrated as performing femininity ‘perfectly’, which leaves women like me desiring more from our bodies. We wish we were thinner, or had curves, had bigger boobs, or smaller tummies, had longer legs, and peachier bums. Women are deterred from loving their natural selves at all costs. The ‘natural’ woman is rarely celebrated or represented in the media, because it is much harder to make money off of a woman who loves herself. Instead, there is a large focus on what women can do to improve themselves…how they can change their bodies in order to mimic the appearance of the conventionally attractive woman that we see being celebrated and praised so highly in the media. Performing femininity ‘perfectly’ seems to serve as an inescapable requirement that all women must endeavour to achieve, no matter the cost…

‘I say I love myself, and they’re like, “oh my gosh”, she’s so brave. She’s so political. For what? All I said is “I love myself, bitch!”’

Lizzo

Trends and norms of feminine appearance seem to change drastically over time, meaning the pursuit of this feminine ideal can be a confusing and somewhat dangerous territory to navigate. Due to these frequent changes in bodily trends though, there is an unreasonable degree of pressure placed on women to keep up with this ‘perfect woman’ ideal, which can often lead to us carrying out appearance-related rituals that compromise our mental and physical health. For years now, I have been carrying out disciplines and routines to ‘better’ myself, by making small changes to my body. I exercise, diet, wear makeup, buy new clothes, paint my nails, style my hair, do skincare routines, shave my body hair, wear perfume, get piercings, apply fake-tan…the list goes on. I have tried fad diets, meal replacement shakes and even bought pills which work by suppressing your hunger. Weirdly, these rituals seem to disguise themselves as things I just do for ‘self-care’, to make me feel better. It’s interesting to me the relationship I have between feeling happiness and looking like anything but my natural self. My automatic assumption that to be happy is to be pretty, thin and conventionally attractive. But then I remember that we live in a capitalist-functioning society that rewards women for adhering to the ideals of feminine beauty that the media shoves down our throats (and has done since we were little). I think that from a very young age, girls are encouraged to believe that if they look feminine, behave in a feminine way and have feminine values and interests (whatever this even means), then they have somehow won, or achieved something… If we are thin and beautiful and we fit in, that this equates to our success and therefore our happiness. We are told off when we do things that ‘aren’t ladylike’, or if we are wearing outfits that are considered ‘slutty’ or ‘too revealing’; we are politely reminded that only ‘really skinny girls wear those dresses’ and that being ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ is unattractive and something that we should steer clear of.  

It’s not at all surprising then, that often girls feel inadequate and learn to hate their bodies. Fad diets, Botox and cosmetic surgery, hunger-suppressant pills, meal-replacement shakes, and excessive exercise seem to serve as a solution for us to ensure that we don’t become this fat and ugly monster that we are all too often poisoned against? Recently though, I have seen that girls seem to be hating their bodies at a much younger age, they are embarking on these dangerous ‘solutions’ and feeling the need to alter themselves when they are still kids. But when celebrities, and social media influencers, and even ‘normal’ young women in their 20s/30s who these girls look up to as role models, are promoting vitamins that give you better hair and skin, pills that suppress appetite, teas that reduce ageing, meal replacement shakes, skinny tea/coffees that are filled with laxatives, waist trainers, and Botox and cosmetic surgery, to young, vulnerable, and easily influenced girls, I think it’s easier to understand how these children can come to hate themselves. No girl should be led to believe that it is healthy to suppress their hunger, or consume laxatives, or squash their bodies into tiny waist trainers (which can severely damage our internal organs), or drink a shake rather than eat a meal. Why are women of all ages, but particularly girls between the ages of 15-25 encouraged to drink tea to reduce their ageing??? I wish the people who promote these products would think about how damaging these habits are and take responsibility as role models who have the power to influence young girls, who don’t need any more added pressure to look perfect. I wish they could understand, that preserving the mental and physical health of young girls is more important than making money from destroying the self-worth of children. Having said this, it seems easier to understand why it is considered such a political statement, for women to declare that they love themselves.          

There is an obsession surrounding the rhetoric of losing weight, looking younger, before and after/transformation pictures, going on ‘health kicks’, detoxing and how to obtain the perfect ‘summer’ and ‘bikini’ body (this one is actually astonishingly toxic to me – why have we been taught to think that our bodies are seasonal? In winter, they’re not allowed to be seen, they are being trained to perfection for the big reveal in summer…Our bodies are not school projects or artistic sculptures that we don’t want anyone to see until they are finished or look perfect). When I think about it, I’ve never heard anyone speak about losing weight in a negative context, women seem to gain respect, value and likeability after sharing their weight loss journey. I often hear ‘she’s lost so much weight’, closely followed by something like, ‘doesn’t she look amazing’. It’s worrying to me, that at 23 years old, I’m only just starting to really understand how damaging these comments are.              

‘You can’t hate yourself happy. You can’t criticize yourself thin. You can’t shame yourself worthy. Real change begins with self-love and self-care.’

 Jessica Ortner

‘Hating our bodies is something that we learn, and it sure as hell is something that we can unlearn.’

Megan Jayne Crabbe

For quite a while now, me and my body have had a mutual understanding that we make each other sad. I don’t blame my body for that (although I have in the past), but growing up girl and trying to cope with the pressures of being and looking like the right ‘type’ of person has had a detrimental effect on my mental health. On several occasions, I have found myself terrified to take up space or be seen in public because I have been ashamed and disgusted at the way I look. Growing up, I would often cancel plans because I didn’t feel comfortable seeing other people. If my sister and friends managed to persuade me to come out, I would try on clothes or look in the mirror and just cry, then I would force myself to exercise, cry again and find something to wear that still didn’t look nice but also didn’t look completely awful (or as awful as it did half an hour ago before my exercise), and then I would let myself go out. I wouldn’t be filled with confidence, but soon enough I would be drunk so I wouldn’t care/notice as much. (Shoutout to Fern and Yasmin for dealing with my shit and getting me through that time).  I truly hated my body and punished myself for it at every opportunity. I had internalised feelings of guilt which meant that my relationship with food was awful. I would often find that I was starving/depriving myself of food, and when I got to university, I would occasionally make myself sick so that I wouldn’t feel so guilty for eating. I have had friends in the past who told me I had ‘Body Dysmorphia’, but I was in denial about that too. I remember thinking, I’m not mistaken, I know what I can see in the mirror, I just don’t like it, I don’t have a problem, I just need to change the way I look, and then I will be happy. It’s weird because when I think about it now, I can see how irrational and problematic all of that behaviour was, but at the time it’s very easy to convince yourself that you don’t deserve to be happy unless you look a particular way.

When I think about the relationship I have had with my own body, it makes me really worried for younger girls who are yet to navigate this complex relationship that the vast majority of women go through with their bodies. But what makes me most sad when I think about the constant pressure that female bodies face, is that I have never met a girl who feels, or has always felt, completely secure in her own skin. The vast majority of us seem to experience this horrendous rites of passage, filled with self-hatred and criticism. Research suggests that 86% of women are ‘dissatisfied with their bodies’ and want to lose weight, with only 2% of women around the world describing themselves as ‘beautiful’. In addition, ‘women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity’. The NHS has suggested that anorexia and eating disorders in younger children may be increasing. In 2019, they revealed that, ‘child and adolescent psychiatrists reported 305 new cases of anorexia during an 8-month period, among children and young people with an average age of between 14 to 15 years. Overall, that translated to around 14 new cases of anorexia per 100, 000 young people aged 8 to 17 each year.’ These statistics demonstrate the cultural obsession with dieting and the pressure women face to attain the feminine ideal, that only seems to be worsening and becoming more and more out of control. Perhaps a more refined focus on recognising the beauty within our true, natural selves and representing diverse female bodies, rather than the perceived beauty in enforced ideals would significantly reduce the number of women and children who suffer from diseases associated with poor mental and physical health.

‘Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is good.’

Serena Williams

Me and my body are getting along much better now. I appreciate what she does for me rather than hating her for what she looks like. It seems I have finally realised that ALL bodies are worth celebrating, including mine.

It still frustrates me when people pass judgements based on the appearance of others, but hopefully one day in the future, they will realise how damaging their words can be and that there are far better things to do with their time. I don’t expect body/appearance shaming to end tomorrow, or that people will stop making money by looking like and promoting the ‘perfect woman’. But I hope with the current traction of the body positivity movement as well as developments in the representation of diverse bodies e.g. the Savage Fenty show (I would highly recommend watching if you haven’t already, and choose to buy Savage Fenty instead of Victoria’s Secret); that people will be able to see their beautiful, normal, body types being reflected back to them, popularised and celebrated, and will hopefully be less likely to undertake gruelling processes to change themselves to fit into a rigid mould that society expects of us.  

As we enter the Holiday/New Year season, I think it is important to be mindful of the toxic rhetoric that surrounds New Year resolutions and goals. Let’s be a little more kind to each other and ourselves. Don’t let yourself feel bad for eating, or feel the need to eat extremely clean/minimally now so that you can ‘treat’ yourself over Christmas, don’t put ridiculous amounts of pressure on yourself to lose that quarantine weight. Make your New Year’s Resolution to become healthier, or increase fitness, to get into yoga or meditation, rather than to weigh less or look thinner or anything that reinforces being this unrealistic image of the ‘perfect woman’. Uplift friends, family and strangers with compliments instead of making insulting/judgemental comments. Make an effort to unlearn negative stereotypes and call people out for their objectification and sexualisation of the female form. Look in the mirror and compliment yourself as though you would a friend. We will likely be bombarded with sales pitches from members of pyramid schemes to encourage us to buy products to get that bikini body for 2021, but let’s avoid buying into this punishment and reward rhetoric where we are convinced by others that our appearance needs fixing. Remember, there is no one ‘perfect’ body. Bikini and Summer bodies do not exist. Our bodies are unique and incredible, they do so much for us. ALL of them deserve to be celebrated and loved. Let’s avoid any appearance-related judgements and prioritise mental and physical health after a truly challenging year.

‘And I said to my body softly, “I want to be your friend.” It took a long breath and replied, “I have been waiting my whole life for this.”’

Nayyirah Waheed

Recommendations

Listen to Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), by Baz Luhrmann