The Shame of Sweetness: Food As Code

This morning as I was making my coffee (four creamers and four packets of sugar, thanks very much), I realized that I was mildly uncomfortable. There was another person in the kitchen with me, and I was shielding my coffee from her with my body, vaguely ashamed that I fill my delicious morning beverage with sweet, sugary goodness.

I’ve noticed this before. People talk about drinking black coffee like a badge of pride. They ridicule mochas and frappuccinos and people who put cream and sugar into their coffee as if it was a sin to want something that tastes yummy. And it’s not just with coffee drinks: think of the ridicule that people who drink appletinis face. Sure it’s not really a big deal. No one will beat you for drinking a pink cocktail of some sort, but there’s an undercurrent in which things that are sweet are consistently seen as “covering up” what you’re actually consuming, and thus as bad.

But why does it matter? Why do we care if people quietly (or not so quietly) judge our food choices?

For some insight, let’s think about the adjective that people use when they ridicule these drinks: girly. Girly drinks. With a little umbrella in them. For the ladies who can’t handle “real” booze or “real” coffee.

Sweetness is code for feminine. It’s code for not being able to handle “reality” and having to cover it up. Because people really need to read that much into a desire to eat or drink something that tastes good/actually listen to your palette when it says that you do or don’t like something.

There is an odd cult of masculinity around things that taste like shit and being able to eat things that taste like shit and/or hurt you when you eat them (cinnamon challenge anyone?). Oddly, putting oneself in situations that require pain or discomfort is seen as good and manly and powerful and strong, whereas actually doing things you enjoy is seen as girly (unless it’s eating a steak which gets a pass because killing things and eating their flesh is also manly). And for that reason, eating things that are sweet is considered feminine. It’s delicate, because only weak ladies feel the need to consume things that go down easy.

Food is an important cultural signifier. We use it to communicate our values (see veganism and vegetarianism), to communicate our in-groups (through ethnic food or family traditions), to bond with each other (group meals), and to communicate how we fit into the world (eating disorders are a good example of this, but many people choose their food to signify what kind of a person they are). We don’t often look to food consciously as a way to reveal our prejudices or assumptions, but it’s woven into every day of our lives (even when we’re not eating it).

As someone who has spent nearly five years spending the majority of their time thinking about food, I have found that it says a lot more about what we think that we might at first believe. Which means that this phenomenon of saying that sweet things are girly and because they’re girly we shouldn’t drink them or we should be horribly ashamed to drink them probably says more about American culture than what it appears at face value.

It says that acting “sweet” is covering things up, but it’s also feminine. It says that no one should want to be like that because it’s weak and it’s fake, but I guess if you’re cute and girly enough you can get away with it (but probably only if you have a big, beer drinking man with you). But it also says that if you’re sweet and pink and drink things with an umbrella, then you’re not to be taken seriously. You can go sit on the porch while the big kids talk.

I’ve seen this happen in an internalized misogyny kind of way too: women who refuse to drink anything but straight bourbon because they’re convinced it makes them look more “serious”. Women who feel like they ┬áneed to learn how to drink beer because otherwise they won’t be taken seriously when they go out with coworkers or go to networking events. Because we have to signal with what we put into our bodies that we are not weak: we can tolerate discomfort or bitterness. We can like it. We can be “one of the boys”.

And yet no one seems to question it. No one seems to feel any need to mention the fact that pushing people to consume things that they actually find horribly disgusting is a fairly harmful norm to be teaching (yes, do that thing you hate because it will show that you’re one of the guys!), and that it all stems from sexist notions that things which are pleasant are feminine and thus to be derided.

Fuck that noise. It is strong to know what I like and to listen to my likes and dislikes. There is nothing weak about doing things that feel nice. There’s nothing weak about things coded feminine. And guess what? Even men should be allowed to do things that they like and which are utterly frivolous. It might seem silly to start with food. That might seem like it’s unimportant, or not really making a change. But we eat every day and the ways we behave around food can easily translate into other, larger actions. I will make no apologies about what I like, and I encourage others to do the same. I feel no need to force myself to drink beer in order to learn to like it, and if men can’t respect me because I prefer a hard cider that’s their own damn sexist fault.

Now excuse me, I have a mocha to buy. Maybe I’ll stick a tiny umbrella in it.

The Internalized Misogyny of the Follow

I’ve been on a bit of a dance hiatus for a long time after feeling a bit of a plateau and some serious anhedonia issues that left me feeling uninspired by dancing. However this week I finally got back in the saddle and made it out to a dance. Overall I found myself having somewhat lackluster dances as tends to happen after you’re gone for a long period of time, but my last two dances were with Anthony Chen and they were fantastic. Now that in and of itself is not a surprise, as it’s always fun to dance with Anthony, but what surprised me was how I felt about myself and my dancing during and after the dancing.

In the past, one of the things I’ve loved about dancing is the feeling of losing myself. I don’t have to think, I don’t have to plan, I can trust someone else to guide me and get me where I need to go. I’m not generally very good at trusting others, particularly with my body, and so for a long time I thought that this was progress: I could trust someone with my body, to place my body, to let someone else be in charge for a while and let myself simply go with what was happening.

It’s a feeling a bit like being on a roller coaster: you feel almost out of control, but you trust that you will be safe.

This dance was different. I found that instead of being told where I was supposed to go, I put forward my own energy and found someone else there with me. I contributed. I usually am extremely self-conscious of adding any flare or styling to my dancing. I get scared of screwing it up or looking stupid. I worry that it won’t fit into what my lead is doing. This wasn’t even on my mind during this dance. I simply DANCED and happened to be with another person. Each time one of us added some energy in, the other saw that and raised their own energy level to match. It was lovely.

I realize that this is not a revelation. There has been a robust discussion ongoing in the dance community about changing attitudes towards the lead/follow relationship and about the importance of equal partnership in dancing. I even was aware that this was the ideal in dancing for a long time before I had this dance (there have been few others where I’ve actually felt that I could achieve something close to this ideal). Rather what was a revelation was my own personal attitude towards the experiences of dancing equally and dancing not in partnership. I cannot speak for anyone else when it comes to these types of attitudes, but I strongly suspect that there are other women out there who share them.

I feel more comfortable when I’m not in control of my own body. I feel more safe. I feel as if I’m doing something right when I give up some of the autonomy that I have and let someone move me. It feels like an intense relief to me. Looking objectively at these two experiences, I can see that I dance better when I am on equal footing with my partner, but I am deeply uncomfortable with contributing something of myself to the dance. Instead, I simply want to get it “right” and do what the other person is asking me: be the perfect follow that is just an extension of the lead.

I have noticed this in other areas as well. For all that I hold feminist ideals and strive to be independent and autonomous, I often feel the most comfortable when someone else is telling me what to do, particularly when it comes to questions of the body. I prefer not to be particularly ostentatious with my body. I know that I have internalized these attitudes because society has told me to be more submissive than men, has told me that my body is dangerous, has told me that my body is an object.

Some people might deny the link between the objectification of women and the tendency for female follows to be passive in their dancing, but I know that it is true in my personal experience and I strongly suspect that it may be true for others. I worry that by encouraging women to be follows and that by continuing to teach follows to be an extension of the lead, we are solidifying the internal misogyny of many women. I know it has encouraged me to continue taking a backseat in my own body and in my own motion. It has not encouraged me to take up space, something that I have always found difficult and that I have actively worked to do. It has not encouraged me to be intentional with my body.

And so I worry that the way dancing is approached by many women is from a mindset of internalized misogyny that not only sets them up to dance worse than they could, but also to continue to put themselves in vulnerable positions. I don’t think it’s a stretch that the way we present our bodies and relate to others in dancing can carry over to many other places, even so far as sex (I’ve found that I’m very passive in both contexts out of much of the same motivation: fear of screwing up, fear of disappointing my partner, fear of looking stupid). But more than that, it seems that dancing could be a wonderful place to experiment with new attitudes, new rules, and new behaviors. It’s a fairly safe space (the worst that happens is you have a bad dance), and it’s one of the few places where we actively learn what we’re supposed to do with our bodies. In my mind, this gives dance teachers (especially those who are teaching beginner students) a great deal of power to make a positive impact in the lives of their female students. It certainly means that they should be careful with the language they use (e.g. I once heard a teacher refer to follows as a trailer hitch. Not helpful), and at the very least spend some good time with follows early on in dancing to set up the concept of equal partnership in dancing.

I’d really like to encourage other follows to think about the dances they prefer, the dances that make them feel comfortable and ask themselves about how that might reflect on their relationship with their body or gender. I’m certainly going to be more intentional going forward about not letting myself slip into a passive role, and I am setting myself a goal to learn how to lead. I would be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts about the relationship between gender and style of dance. Sound off in the comments!

Losing Ground: The Balancing Act of the Radical and the Practical

My mom and I talk often about feminism and feminist issues, as these are questions close to both of our hearts. However the two of us come from very different eras of feminism: my mother came of age in the time of free love and (supposed) bra burning. She fought to let women keep their own names when they marry, for contraception rights, against painful and oppressive clothing, against sexual harassment in the workplace, against unequal pay and unequal hiring practices. She did some damn amazing things and her generation set the groundwork for the conversations my generation is having now.

But my mom and I disagree on a lot of things. An example: one of the conversations in feminism right now is about presenting as femme and how that presentation is often devalued. Many people have come to accept that wearing make up and dressing femme are personal choices and there’s nothing wrong at all with presenting as feminine (thinking there is may actually be the problem). A lot of people are embracing fashions from Mad Men, vintage clothes, high stilettos and reimagining them in ways that they find empowering.

My mother is appalled by this. She fought so that women didn’t have to balance on spikey little heels that destroyed their backs and made it impossible for them to move or do much of anything physical. She thinks we’re losing ground. She thinks women have forgotten what it used to be like.

So who’s right? It seems to me there are valid arguments on both sides: choosing to wear clothes that hurt you and render you physically helpless seems like a pretty bad idea and fairly oppressive. At the same time, telling anyone else what they need to wear and implying that things coded as feminine are bad is really not ok. Are we losing ground or are we coming to a more complex understanding of what clothes signify and how “femme” coded things are often viewed distastefully?

Well both. Here’s the thing: feminism is always a balance of the practical and the idealistic. When we tell young women that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves against rape, that they should be able to wear the clothes they want to wear, we are imagining an ideal world and we are trying to force that ideal world to exist with our actions. When our mothers tell us “please be safe, please think about how you can protect yourself” they are desperately trying to be practical and keep us safe because they know that the world that exists now is not ideal.

We need both. I would never shame someone for their clothing choice but I also sure as hell would never leave my drink unattended at a party. Even if we try to . We live in a world that is not ideal and yet we are hoping against hope that we can make it closer to the ideal. This is a difficult place to be, because when we fall on the wrong side of the balance either we get hurt or someone else gets hurt.

When I look at the differences between earlier waves of feminism and today’s feminism, that question is often what I see: should we aim for the practical or the radically idealistic? Those of us who are working on feminist issues today are in the incredibly privileged position that we even get to look at the ideal. For my mom, that was not always an option: asking men to respect you whatever your clothing choices took second fiddle to actively protecting yourself from rape, assault, and abuse, and if that meant wearing a different set of clothes then so be it.

There are all kinds of issues that this crops up in: we only get to debate the ideals of consent because our forebears put in place protections against rape that have given us the space to breathe. We need both the practical and the idealistic, but we always need to be keenly aware of who might be hurt and who might be helped by any of our rhetoric.

It also seems that if we reimagine the differences between the various waves of feminism in terms of where they draw the boundary of radical and practical, we may come to a better understanding of why people did what they did and how we can build off of their successes. Perhaps this can also lead current feminists to be less defensive about their choice feminism and recognize some of the practical aspects to their choices: while it’s great to imagine a world in which femme-coded clothing is on par with masculine clothing, in the here and now that clothing was designed to be limiting to your body and your abilities, and that is a reality that needs to be taken into account.

I’m not sure where the balance is on a lot of these questions. I do take steps to protect myself from rape, even as I try to explain to the men in my life how they can keep from putting women in uncomfortable and bad situations. I have no idea how possible it is to act consistently while being both radical and practical. I’m sure that there will always be swings back and forth between them.

One thing the feminists of today do need to keep in mind is that the space we have now to imagine the ideal was not always there and is not a guarantee. We do need to remember what things have been like and why, and remind ourselves that whatever steps we take in moving forward, we must be careful to protect ourselves from the potential of moving backwards. Perhaps instead of reclaiming heels and tight skirts we could work to create a new sexy, a new femme, because we remember the oppressive nature of those items in the past.

What does seem clear to me is that many of the debates that are happening in the feminist world right now are about how safe we feel and about whether we want to take clear, practical steps in the world as it is to protect ourselves or whether we want to begin to act as if the world is the ideal one we aim for. If we were all perfect, brave, impossible feminists, we would make this world our ideal. We would not flinch when we act radically outside of the norm and put ourselves in potential danger. But I can never fault someone for trying to keep themselves safe and healthy in the world that they live in here and now.