race, food, bikes, gender

Another reminder that green/feminist movements are as marked by gender and class as right wing politics…

I’m seeing correlations between slutwalk discourse and this little trail of articles dealing with race/food politics/gardening/environmentalism/cycling. While I’m fascinated by discussions of food and health and environmentalism as a socialist project, for a while now I’ve had a little voice in the back of my brain saying “Dood, where’s race in all this? Can we talk about ethnicity a little bit more? And not in a ‘Mysteries of the Orient’ Food Safari way?” I stumbled over The Doree Chronicles’ post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How the Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on Tumblr, then traced its references back. This post read as a sort of snippet of idea, in the context of a general Tumblr blog dealing with all sorts of things the author found interesting. Tumblr shits me a bit as this sort of backtracking is unnecessarily complex, but I guess that’s a consequence of personal sites which encourage a ‘collector’ approach rather than a ‘writerly’ approach.

From that little post linking food politics, race, ethnicity and the bike movement, I found Erika Nicole Kendall’s post ‘The Unbearable Whiteness of Eating: How The Food Culture War Affects Black America’ on the Black Girls Guide To Weight Loss site. This post framed the discussion within a broader discussion of race and gender and weight loss as a health issue.

This post led me to Janani Balasubramanian’s piece ‘Sustainable Food and Privilege: Why is Green Always White (and Male and Upper-Class)’ which linked the bike movement talk to race and gender and environmentalism and food politics. I like this piece for the way it links gender to food production, and I like the question:

Can Pollan not drive home the point that Americans need to cook more often without guilting American feminists?

I’m really not up to speed with food politics’ talk, but I feel as though all this talk is echoing some of my reservations about slutwalk, and some of my thoughts about food politics. It also reminds me of some things I’ve read about the civil rights movement in America in the 60s, where the peace movement in particular was also quite sexist. In that context, the ‘free love’ discourse was a double-edge sword. While the pill gave women contraceptive control of their sexuality and bodies, there was also an attendant shift in the way many men began thinking about these women as ‘sexually available’. I wonder if we should perhaps be a little sceptical of a new women’s movement (or new stream in a broader feminism) that lauds heterosexual freedom in such uncomplicated ways. Because of course the pill didn’t function the same way, ideologically, for lesbian women that it did for straight women.

I feel as though we’re also revisiting issues raised (and continually raised) by women of colour from that period and recently. For those women race was a far more pressing concern, organising their activism in a way that gender did not. And these women were very critical of ‘mainstream’ feminists for not interrogating their own privilege. Or, more simply, for not noticing that everyone signing books in the wimminz bookshops was white.

I’m of course thinking about bell hooks and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, but I’ve also heard Australian Aboriginal women like Marcia Langton make similar arguments. I haven’t found it, but I’d be certain there’d be some cool stuff written about ‘bush tucker’, the Northern Territory intervention (where government pensions are ‘retained’ specifically for buying food), gender and equity. I’m also certain that there’d be some really interesting stuff by migrant women writers in Australia (and elsewhere) about food, gender, class and social (as well as bodily) ‘health’. Someone has to have taken the bike movement to task as well? I mean, if I’m banging on about it on Faceplant when people say stupid things like “There is no excuse not to ride distances under 10km”, then surely someone else has made the same points more cleverly?

I’ve just had a quick look but I CAN’T find that interesting study a Victorian university group did recently where they found that if women felt safe cycling in a city, then the numbers of cyclists in that city over all were higher. I was telling this story to some hardcore environmentalist/sustainable energy types at a party the other week, and they were all “Oh shit, I’d never thought of that!” And I was thinking ‘That’s because you’re over-achieving, able bodied, young, male engineers living in well-serviced cities who dismiss feminism as ‘something for women’.’ But I didn’t say that out loud. Instead I laboured through a gentle (and brief) point that environmental movements have to be socially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable. I wanted to talk about how birth control for women in developing countries is directly related to environmentally sustainable development in those same countries, but I didn’t.

I think there are also some really important points to be made about ‘food security’ for children in poor communities and families in big cities, and how food security is directly related to educational and social achievements, and how getting enough to eat (let alone eating ‘well’) is directly related to justice and equity in relation to gender and race and all those other lovely identity markers. I don’t know much about this at all, but I heard an interesting Health Report podcast about this and started thinking about the relationships between organic gardening, social justice, ethnicity and economic power. And goddamn bicycles.

To sum up this messy, ill-informed, poorly researched and unsubstantiated introduction to my mess of thoughts, I direct your attention to Tammi Jonas, who’s trekking through the American wilds with the Jonai clan in glorious 70s campervanning style, writing and thinking about food and family as she goes. Her progress is written up at Crikey, but I quite like the posts on her blog. Tammi is all over these issues.

I’d also suggest some time with Cristy Clark who’s exploring ecotarianism in real-family settings (ie, her own), and of course do drop in at Progressive Dinner Party to see related issues taken up. If you’re especially interested in kids and food, then PDP’s Head Cook Zoe is a good source, not to mention the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which is all about kids, food and well-being.

Fuck that shit. I’m not wearing no fucking high heeled shoes.

[EDIT: this is a post responding to a series of arguments provoked by Sarah’s post. Some she makes herself, some have been made by other people.
EDIT no2: if you’re just new here (and I’m suddenly getting a lot of traffic), you might be interested in reading about my general philosophy of following here. Might be.]

I began to think about writing this post back when I wrote Women talking about their own bodies and how this issue was trolled or women dancers wearing high heels and talking about it. I did write something longer and with cleverer arguments. Then I just gave up. So this is shorter and blunter and proper ranty.

Now, I’m going to make this very clear, right here in the introduction. I’m playing the ball, not the woman. Sarah Breck is a great dancer, in heels, out of them or doing her own genderbending action. I don’t question her dancing ability or knowledge about dancing. And I’m not telling her she shouldn’t wear heels. But I am, sure as shit, challenging the arguments about gender norms and fashion she makes in her recent blog post. Here, I’m going to respond to Sarah Breck‘s original comment that women should wear heels while lindy hopping. She opens her post with:

Growing up in the Lindy scene I have heard so many times how women should wear heels because that’s what women are suppose to do. We are women and women wear heels. Now I loved that traditional ideal but I never could get past the FEELING that being in heels gave me. Every attempt I had made to wear heels I felt off balanced; unstable; and constricted in my movement.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I should just stop there. Because that is some crazy, fucked up shit. Women supposed to do what? Love that traditional what? Yeah, I know. But you’d be surprised by just how influential this sort of attitude is in the lindy hop world.

So here it is. I’m delivering the smack down.

1. I am suspicious of any argument that I should look like this lady to the left while doing anything. But particularly dancing.

2. I am extra suspicious of any argument that begins ‘women (not men) should do X’. I am absolutely calling bullshit on any argument that then continues ‘because they look better’. I think we owe it to ourselves to immediately question this sort of bullshit gender essentialism. My first response to any suggestion that I should do something because a) I’m a woman and b) it looks better is to do the exact opposite.

3. I’m utterly disinterested in doing something simply because it is fashionable. And dancing in heels is, first and foremost, a fashion choice – choosing to wear something to look like everyone else (or to look like the ‘cool’ people). I like jazz because it fucks up shit. So I choose not to wear heels just because everyone else is doing it. I choose to argue against wearing heels because it is suggested that they will make men (or anyone else) like you more. That shit is wrongtown.

4. As Frankie Manning said, “Get in shape to do lindy hop, don’t do lindy hop to get in shape.” The argument here is that lindy is such a demanding dance it requires a high level of fitness and muscular strength and control to perform at an advanced level (and even at a moderate level, I’d argue). So I run and cycle and swim and do strength training so that I can dance at my best.
Sarah argues that women should learn to dance in high heels by dancing in high heels. This smells a) like bullshit and b) dangerous. If a dancer (male or female) wants to dance in heels, they should first develop mad core strength, excellent glutes, badass calf muscles and so on and so on before they step into a pair of heels.

5. If someone asks you to suffer so you can look a particular way, be just like everyone else, or otherwise conform with someone else’s ideas of how to be a desirable woman, you should immediately shout NO! Because that is also wrongtown.
Wearing heeled shoes is bad for your feet, for you body and for your badassery. There is no evidence to support the argument that wearing heels is anything other than bad for you unless you are actually incredibly fit and strong and capable of holding your perfect posture in all conditions. Most dancers are a) not incredibly fit, b) actually dancing on some sort of undiagnosed or untreated injury. Wearing heels is just plain bad news.

6. And finally, an historical argument. Women lindy hoppers today should wear high heeled shoes, because that’s what women lindy hoppers wore then? Hm. I call bullshit, again.
There’s ample evidence and many photos of women dancers from the 20s, 30s and 40s wearing all sorts of shoes. There are some correlations between race, class and gender and what dancers are wearing in footage from films (ie white women dancers tend to wear heels; black women dancers who tend to be presented as ‘servant’ type characters tend not to wear heels), but these are not consistent, and this is cinema – it’s not real life. We should also be suspicious of recreating fucked up gender/class/ethnic stereotypes. This is the 21st century. Let’s make good discourse, not reproduce fucked up shit from the past.
There’s actually quite a bit of anecdotal as well as primary source evidence to support the idea that while they wore heels sometimes (especially if they were west coast white girls), many lindy hoppers didn’t wear heels while dancing badass a) because it impeded their badassery and b) they were often all about rebellion and being unconventional.


Wearing heels is all about boring reproduction of boring conventional gender roles. It stops you being totally badass (ie you can’t dance hardcore or do scary aerials or otherwise rock ON). And if you’re not going to be badass – if you’re not aiming to be the best you that you can be – what’s the point?

women talking about their own bodies and how this issue was trolled or women dancers wearing high heels and talking about it

My attention was caught yesterday by a thread on Yehoodi about a blog post by Sarah Breck titled Why women should wear heels. Sarah took down the original post and replaced it with another, but I’ve just had another look and seen that the post is back up again. My post, here, is about the way this issue fits into a bigger story about how dancers control their online, public image.

A brief long time line:

  • Sarah writes Why women should wear heels about women wearing high heels while dancing;
  • there’s some comment on that blog post in the comments section;
  • Manu links to the post in a thread on Yehoodi;
  • Yehoodi readers click through to Sarah’s blog post and read it;
  • there’s a heap of commentary in the yehoodi thread;
  • the people clicking through from yehoodi comment on Sarah’s post in the blog’s comments;
  • Sarah’s dance partner and boyfriend Dax (who co-writes the blog featuring the original post) defends Sarah’s argument in the comments section of Sarah’s blog post;
  • some people write posts on their own blogs linking to Sarah’s post (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog);
  • Sarah deletes her original post;
  • Sarah writes another post on the issue called “altho I guarantee every follow I have seen wear tennis shoes and heels always look better in heels and that should be reason enough”;
  • Dax writes a post called Why Men Should Wear Heels (How Wearing Slick Leather Shoes Made Me A Better Dancer);
  • there’s more to-ing and fro-ing on their post on this topic;
  • I read @ryanswift’s tweet linking to his tumblr post linking to the yehoodi thread;
  • I gabble a bit about it on twitter late last night after dancing;
  • I have bizarre dreams about shoes last night;
  • I decide to read up on this issue today, write a few drafts of this post, then write this post;
  • I think about @ryanswift’s implication that women dancers’ decision to wear heels (or not) should/is influenced by historical evidence of what women dancers wore in the ‘swing era’;
  • I think about the Harlem Hot Shots and how they wear whatever they like (including heels), but don’t look like Sarah (or the other women in her post) dancing in heels;
  • I think about the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers wearing sneakers and heels at different times in different contexts;
  • I think about a comment in Malcolm X’s bio about women at the Savoy arriving in nice heels then changing into sneakers to dance seriously;
  • I do the half hour blocks of exercises my physio gave me to strengthen my abs, glutes, hip joints, knees, etc so that I can relieve pressure on my calf muscle which I’ve recently torn because I overwork my calves dancing on the ball of my foot in flat shoes;
  • I resolve never to wear heels, ever again, because they are tools of the patriarchy and because I am out to fuck up The Man. Also, because my physio would give me that ‘are you on crack?’ face;
  • I think about all the Women’s History Month posts I’ve done lately, and particularly about the heels in the white dancers’ clips, and the flats in the black dancers’ clips, and I think about how heels make you look as though your toes are always pointed, and I think about how pointed toes and straight legs embody culturally specific ideals of feminine beauty;
  • I write this post.

I think Sarah has the right to retract her statement. Though good luck to her – retracting comments from the intertubes is pretty much impossible. I might include the content from both of Sarah’s posts (which I’ve just copied and pasted at 1.55pm Sat 26th March 2011) in another post, but I’ll think about it carefully before I do. If I do reproduce her posts, I’ll engage with her arguments carefully, as I think she’s making a knowledgeable contribution to a discussion about women and dance.

I was disappointed to see Sarah take down the original post, as I think she has a perfect right to express her opinion. I also think that opinion is worth exploring, as Sarah is an excellent dancer, and a big name, influential teacher. She teaches other women how to dance, and she provides an influential contribution to dance discourse. I’d have preferred she didn’t take down her post, as it disturbs the narrative ‘flow’ of this wider discussion (there are a bundle of other blog posts from other people as well as the Yehoodi thread already), but then that’s really my problem, not hers. The absence of her post is itself a statement: she wanted to disassociate herself from that public statement, perhaps, while she might still stand by her original point.

I also understand why she might like to take the post down. Manu’s original link to her post seemed a little trolly (and was the second link he’s recently made to an inflamatory statement of traditional gender roles, not counting the segment on the Yehoodi talk show), and and this sent people to Sarah’s post in a fairly antagonistic frame of mind. Sarah didn’t really get the better end of this (desperate metaphoric) stick, and there were some firey comments and discussions.

As I read it, the debate on Yehoodi and in responding blog posts (taint what you do, ann mony, short girl blog) seemed to be polarised between conservative blokes valorising traditional, patriarchal notions of femininity and leftish women firing up and attacking Sarah’s comments. I’m not sure Sarah has that much experience with online debates (going by the style of her writing and her responses to comments), and suddenly being at the centre of what was becoming a shit storm would have upset me. And I’m used to shit storms on dance discussion boards. So, frankly, I think her decision to take down the post was probably a good one. It’s her blog, she’s the boss, and frankly, she has a right to say ‘fuck that shit’ and opt out.

I can’t help but think of the (currently raging) debate surrounding Dilbert author Scott Adams’ scary, misogynist blog post which was brought to my attention by Kate Beaton (of Hark a Vagrant) on twitter. Incidentally, I like the way Beaton’s discussion of being a woman comic author in her tweeting prefaced my reading about the Scott Adams issue: I approached this as a talk about comics authors. You can read his original post here and follow that post to the discussion on Feministe, where things get mighty angry (and Adams chimes in in the comments). Scott Adams wrote the post, sparked a furore, then took down the post. He wrote a post which was doing its best to support and promote scary gender politics and roles.

Sarah’s post, though, while it might also have been promoting conservative gender identities and roles, was not aggressively misogynist, woman-hating bile. It was the measured opinion of one woman posting a comment in a public forum. Yet her writing style was gendered (just as Scott Adams’ was): she is unaggressive, non-confrontational, quick to appease and conciliate. Her male partner chimes in in the comments to defend her. Scott Adams’ style, in contrast, is aggressive, confrontational and fairly unpleasant. Different genders, similarly gendered public talk. Or, perhaps, just as interestingly, Adams’ uses the gendered language of the ‘official’ public sphere: assertive statements, aggressive arguments, attacks and defenses rather than collaboration and cooperation.

In principle, I have some real problems with the content of Sarah’s post. I disagree quite thoroughly. But I am actually very interested in her opinions and discussion: I’ve been thinking about high heeled shoes and women dancers, and I want to read more on this topic. Scott Adams, however, spews vile hate-talk that discourages me from engaging with that discussion.

Sarah is somewhat disadvantaged by her writing skills. The original post has lots of problems, simply as a piece of writing. And the most immediate consequence of this is that it makes it difficult for Sarah to communicate her points clearly and effectively. Another consequence is that Sarah’s status as a knowledgeable dancer and teacher is implicitly destabilised by her writing. While those of us with half a brain realise that being a good dancer and teacher is not at all related to being a good writerer, the weaknesses of her writing imply weaknesses in her logic and argument.

I think there are weaknesses in her argument, but these are unrelated to her writing and – more importantly – thinking skills.

This recent event also reflects a wider issue that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. The last year or two has seen a leap in the number of blogs written and maintained by high profile international dancers. Most of these dancers are what I think of as younger American ‘rock stars’. Rock stars in the sense that they have a modicum of celebrity: well-known, high-profile, fashionable with some dancers, younger, often American. Most of them have had their websites designed and implemented by only a very small number of web nerds, and all have implemented various social media tools.

This is where things get really interesting. I’d argue that these websites have included social media tools – blogs, Faceplant plug ins, twitter feeds, etc – not as part of a carefully planned media strategy, but as a response to a general trend in website design. Yes, social media tools do raise your profile, and do ‘get you out there’. But as with all public relations tools, exposure is a double edged sword. If it were me, I’d vet my contributions to broader discourses very carefully. In fact, I’m not sure I’d even post personal blog posts on my official ‘business’ website – the website promoting my professional persona. I would use my twitter feed fairly prosaicly: updates on my travel and appearances at international and local events, perhaps. I’d also be very careful about my links.

Word of mouth is the most powerful and important promotional tool in international lindy hop. It can make or break a reputation. But a good PR strategy is about knowing how to limit talk as well as encourage it.

This leaves me with some questions.

Firstly, what responsibility should the web designers who produce these multi-media/cross-discourse sites take for their implementation? In any other industry, I’d say “none.” But many of these designers are also members of this community. Should they not take some sort of responsibility for not making sure their clients’ understand how to use their sites, not only practically, but also discursively?

I’ve talked about my own experiences with these sorts of website designers in the post ‘Am I being paranoid or is this dodgy?’, and I think my concerns about aggregated content bare revisiting. Particularly as Manu has also (trolling again?) drawn attention to www.swingdancepro.com, in another Yehoodi thread. Now perhaps Manu is seeing the same sort of trend I have, perhaps he’s just trolling, looking to stir up some debate (and activity) on Yehoodi. I suspect it’s a combination of the two.

Secondly, how should high profile dance teachers use their websites, and how should they manage their online profile? Blogs are useful because they personalise a teacher, and encourage readers (and dancers) to regard the authors as appealing human teachers worth learning from or employing. I’d also imagine a lot of teachers would like to expand on the issues they only touch on in class. They’d like to use blogs as platforms for developing their ideas. I only wonder if they all have the skills and experiences to manage the results of engaging in public talk like this. There are very few blogs written by dancers (high profile or otherwise) which are well-written, carefully thought out actually worth reading regularly. But this is true of the blog world generally: most of us are just spilling out ideas willy-nilly. Grammar, logic and organised though be-damned!
How should these same high profile dance teacher bloggers manage comments and discussion on their sites? If it were me, I’d moderate very carefully, and I’d delete comments that don’t meet my carefully-thought-out-worded-and-publicised comment policy.

I do have more to say about this, particularly in reference to another recent online discussion sparked by Nick’s frank post about working conditions for international teachers, but I’m feeling a bit crook, so I won’t.

soft like thin, perfectly kneaded out dough

It’s funny how when people get older their muscles seems to disappear. So when you hug them, you can feel their bones through their flesh, and the flesh is softer than it was before. Like their bodies have given up on muscle and started concentrating on other things. And their skin has gotten soft, soft like thin, perfectly kneaded out dough.

But when you’re just new, when you’re a baby, you don’t have muscle either. You’re just flesh and new. And then you learn how to use your muscles, and suddenly you’re learning how to sit up or to roll over. Things that are really complicated and take months to learn how to do if you’ve had an accident or been injured. But when you’re a baby, and your muscles and body are just new, you learn how to do these things, each new thing, every week. Just by doing.

When you’re in the middle of your life, or later on, it’s difficult to learn new ways of using your muscles. Especially if you’ve never used them in a mindful way. That means that you really only use the muscles in your arms or your legs or your body to carry yourself around. You don’t stop and think about how you lift yourself up onto your feet, or how you bend to pick something up from the floor. When you use your muscles mindfully – when you understand how to lift your arm up over your head in the most economical way, not also lifting your shoulder or dropping your opposite hip – you are more in your body. You’re not thinking your way through the movement, you are in the movement, with each muscle group as it engages and releases.

When I am caught up in being anxious, I can’t stop thinking. I can’t stop and make myself be right there in whatever it is I’m doing. I eventually end up trying to slow my brain down with repetitive, mindless movement. I do mindless things, repetitive things, over and over and over. Pegging out laundry. Folding sheets.

Sometimes I try to haul myself out of the rushing thoughts – all that anxiety – by doing something with just a little complexity. Crocheting the same basic stitches, around and around in a pattern that requires just enough thinking to keep me interested, but doesn’t let me get caught up in worry-thoughts. Or I sew. I make garments that are just complicated enough to make me concentrate. And the process requires careful planning – find the fabric, preshrink the fabric, cut out the pattern, mark the notches, pin it, stitch it, press it, stitch it, alter it. I listen to the radio with talking to take up any spare thinking. Each step slows me down, makes me pay attention, concentrate on what’s happening right then.

But nothing really helps me stop all that worrying like really pushing my body, physically, to the point where I’m too tired or adrenaline charged to think. And I have to really be there instead, making my legs lift and pound down, or my arms pull through the water. After that, I’m so tired I can’t worry. And after a few days of this, I’m calmed down again, and I’m not worrying. I’m really in my body again, and not cut off, rushed off in anxiety. I feel calmer, and happier, and I can enjoy the running or swimming or training in a more present way, that makes it easier for me to engage with the people and things around me.

Sometimes I worry that this obsessive exercising is unhealthy. But then, I think, other people have used simple, repetitive exercise – mindful movement for centuries, forever as a way of being calm. Of being present. It’s not really a surprise that repetitive movements, strengthening muscles and breathe, gaining understanding of how our bodies work is a key part of spiritual and religious experience as well as martial arts.

It’s not at all spiritual for me. These sorts of things are talked about in yoga, and I find it uncomfortably hippy or mystical. But the same discipline – being present – is central to learning to dance or performing an exercise prescribed by a physiotherapist. You cannot make a dance step really work until you have tried it a hundred different ways, both right and wrong. And understood the difference. Strengthening an injured muscle requires constant, repetitive and yet also mindfully correct and aware repetition.

Being in your body – being present and moving mindfully – is about paying attention. It’s about stopping up all the runaway thoughts about what you’ll be doing later or what you think you should be worrying about. When you move mindfully, or more importantly, when you prepare to move, you are right there in your body at that moment. You are drawing your attention to the muscles you need for the task at hand. And you’re letting the others rest or lie ready for the next task.

Following is about always being read to move, moving mindfully and always being in your body, in the movement, with the rest of your brain at rest, not thinking or worrying or rushing ahead. Following is about turning off muscles, letting them sink back to waiting or readiness, without tightening and working too soon or in the wrong way. Both following and leading are about turning off thinking, and about sinking into your body in a conscious, aware way. It’s not mindless exercise; it’s mindful movement.

This makes me wonder how it is when people do get older. And they’ve spent their life in mindful movement. When the muscles slowly shift from being active and present, to something else or not there at all. What is it like to try to engage them? Does making the movement become completely absorbing? I have heard that if you spend time working your muscles when you’re younger, you maintain better muscle tone when you’re older. This makes sense to me. And the idea of gradually losing that sense of embodied self is a little too frightening.