Laurie Toby Edison


Broken Again: Pharaohe Monch and PTSD

Laurie and Debbie say:

Hip-hop artist Pharaohe Monch has a new album called PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD Cover master iTunes RGB

PTSD gets a lot of play in the U.S. news, because of American soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, but the news generally implies that it’s a condition that only or generally affects soldiers.That’s only true to the extent that you can be a soldier in a war or in the street or in your bedroom.

PTSD gets started when people experience violence in their daily lives: in their homes, in their neighborhoods, or in their livelihoods.  You can have PTSD from being an incest survivor, or a fireman, or living in a dangerous neighborhood. You can get PTSD from what you do and from what’s done to you … frequently both.

Melissa Harris-Perry interviewed Monch about the album. One  especially visceral track is “Broken Again.”

In this song, Monch nails the experience of PTSD by putting you there, both with the music/lyrics and with the video images.

PTSD is everywhere and everyone needs to be aware of it. Pharaohe Monch isn’t making anything easy here; he’s telling the truth instead.

Notes from the Burnout Zone

Lynne Murray says:

Lately I find myself having trouble engaging with the world enough to write a blog post. A post I read about burning out caused a flicker of recognition and I realized that, once again, I am in that place. I’ve been here before, mostly for emotional pain and angst.In this case, sickness with a generous dose of pain has engaged my attention.

For a few years in my 20′s I worked at sorting out how to continue my Buddhist practice without the cult that introduced me to it. I wandered in the wilderness of my own mind and drank a lot. I also dieted, binge-ate and felt deeply ashamed that I was (I thought) a failure at everything. I talked to the walls a lot. My favorite text was Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up.

From this point in my life, Fitzgerald’s essay looks to me like eloquent and entitled whining. If you read the essay in its entirety, you will be struck by Fitzgerald’s casual racism, but when this was my favorite essay in the 1970s, my white-kid-from-the suburbs consciousness was still being raised and I read right past the offensive language in a way I can’t do now. Suffice it to say that at that time, Fitzgerald’s words perfectly captured the cynicism of damaged egocentric idealism with a side order of alcohol.

After I emerged from a few years in that burnout zone, I had found my center in my Buddhist practice. I had also written an unreadable first novel and learned that I love to write novels, the activity that now makes my life worth living.

I didn’t know what would happen until after the burnout was over.

In the years since, I’ve managed to go through life without slipping into isolation, even through the deaths of loved ones, onset of physical disabilities, and extreme financial hardship.

Lately though, I’ve hit a more intense stretch of pain and frustration in dealing with persistent illness, and I’ve been tipped into the burnout zone. When Laurie asked me if I had a potential blog post nothing struck a chord.

I’m not going to go into details about the nature of the physical illness, because I’m just not able to deal with any advice. I’ve tried seven to ten strategies over the past three months, conventional and “un.” One plainspoken friend asked why I’m trying so many different solutions to the painful consequences of my disability.

Why so many?  The answer is: some made it worse, some did little and some helped. So far nothing has worked well enough to completely heal my illness, or effectively relieve my pain. I’m still trying. My daily life is sidetracked and relationships with other people are a bit … attenuated.

But two recent blog posts (both about burnout related to fat activism, rather than to pain and disability) actually raised a flicker of interest that brought me out of the deepest isolation.

On the Health At Every Size® blog, Fall Ferguson, JD, MA, Assistant Professor of Health Education at John F. Kennedy University writes:

There are anti-obesity articles published every day, so I can’t tell you why this one in particular hit me harder. It probably had as much to do with whatever else was going on my life than the article itself. The question that interests me here is what next? How to regroup and reignite the activist fires within? I have three ideas to start the list:

1.    Strategic Retreat: It has to be OK to retreat and “reboot” from time to time. A little R&R away from the front, as it were.

2.    Support: It’s important to seek support from others. I am not very good at this; I tend to brood alone and in silence. But when I overcome that instinct and reach out, the HAES and size acceptance communities are incredibly warm and supportive.

3.     Perspective: Fighting the good fight can’t be about winning every skirmish. I see the cultural shift slowly happening; we all do. Our success breeds outrage among those who have the most to lose. The more acceptance accorded to the HAES approach, the more strident some voices will become in opposition. I am deeply interested in building bridges and finding commonalities of purpose as a long-term strategy, but I also know that there will be those who are not open to making alliances, and you can’t win everyone over.

The HAES® files: And yet it moves…

The other post, FATigued: Finding a second wind in body acceptance was from Dr. Deah Schwartz, PhD, a therapist with a Doctorate in Education, an MS in Therapeutic Recreation, and an MA in Creative Arts Education. She is the author of Leftovers: The Ups and Downs of a Compulsive Overeater and Dr. Deah’s Calmanac, a 12-month interactive guide designed to transform negative body image and disordered eating patterns into a body positive health at every size® approach to wellness.

I am tired. The endless intrusion of diet mandates and body hating messages that wheedle their way into my world via billboards, television, radio, movies, magazines, books, blogs, trolls, and the insidious drive by shoutings has left me fatigued.  Considering we are in beach-body-season, this is to be expected…and I know that because this is my area of personal and professional concern I am perhaps exposed more than most…but I just have to admit that sometimes I hit the wall and feel depleted and hopeless. …

But I am better now.  Because today I read four wonderful body positive articles that gave me hope and infused me with just enough energy to rally, write this blog, and head off to my son’s college graduation. 

I don’t know what personal growth will come out of my own patch of bad road. One never knows that until way after it’s over. The trick is getting through it.

I trust that I will.

2014 WisCon/Tiptree Speeches: Body Image and Much More

Debbie says:

This year’s WisCon had a particularly extraordinary set of guest of honor and Tiptree Award speeches at the Sunday night dessert banquet.

The first guest of honor to speak was Hiromi Goto, author of (among others) The Kappa Child (Tiptree Award winner), Hopeful Monsters, and various young adult books including Half World. Hiromi spoke mostly about story as lived experience.

Story is what has brought me here, today. Story is what has brought you here. We are alike and very unalike in many, many ways. Our bodies, our genders, our sexuality, cultural and historical backgrounds, class, faith, atheism, migration, immigration, colonization, have had us experiencing our lives and our sense of place (if not home) in distinct and particular ways. These differences, at times can divide us. These differences can be used against us to keep us divided. But here we find ourselves. Look around you. The faces of friends and the faces of strangers. We came here because of story. There is much power in story.

There is a Japanese term: kotodama. Word spirit. When you invoke a word you animate it. It becomes. We see echoes of this in other religions/philosophies. I.e. the word is god. When writers try to imagine different ways of engaging, humans to other humans, humans with aliens, humans with animals, all these different relationships, we can make possible new kinds of engagements. To bring stories alive in this way is to try to make change in the workings and fabric of our world. If something is not of this world already, it first needs to be imagined. After it is imagined, it needs to be shaped by the parameters of language. And in writing, in the utterance, the story can begin its life. It can become.

And so we begin. With each telling. With every retelling. A slight skewing of the familiar toward a different plane. The perspective shifts and the way the light falls upon the world casts it anew, ripe with possibility.

N.K. Jemisin‘s guest of honor speech was a call to arms, and war is something we conduct with our bodies:

Maybe you think I’m using hyperbole here, when I describe the bigotry of the SFF [science fiction and fantasy] genres as “violence”. Maybe I am using hyperbole — but I don’t know what else to call it. SFF are dedicated to the exploration of the future and myth and history. Dreams, if you want to frame it that way. Yet the enforced SWM dominance of these genres means that the dreams of whole groups of people have been obliterated from the Zeitgeist. And it’s not as if those dreams don’t exist. They’re out there, in spades; everyone who dreams is capable of participating in these genres. But many have been forcibly barred from entry, tormented and reeducated until they serve the status quo. Their interests have been confined within creative ghettos, allowed out only in proscribed circumstances and limited numbers. When they do appear, they are expected to show their pass and wear their badge: “Look, this is an anthology of NATIVE AMERICAN ANCIENT WISDOM from back when they existed! Put a kachina on the cover or it can’t be published. No, no, don’t put an actual Navajo on the cover, what, are you crazy? We want the book to sell. That person looks too white, anyway, are you sure they aren’t lying about being an Indian? What the hell is a Diné? What do you mean you’re Inuit?”

But the violence that has been done is more than metaphysical or thematic. Careers have been strangled at birth. Identities have been raped — and I use that word intentionally, not metaphorically. What else to call it when a fan’s real name is stripped of its pseudonym, her life probed for data and details until she gets phone calls at her home and workplace threatening her career, her body, and her family? (I don’t even need to name a specific example of this; it’s happened too often, to too many people.) Whole subgenres like magic realism and YA have been racially and sexually profiled, with discrimination based on that profiling so normalized as to be nearly invisible.

Arm yourselves. … Claim the knowledge and language that will be your weapons. Go to sources of additional knowledge for fresh ammunition — histories and analyses of the genre by people who see beyond the status quo, our genre elders, new sources of knowledge like “revisionist” scholarship instead of the bullshit we all learned in school. Find support groups of like-minded souls; these are your comrades-in-arms, and you will need their strength. Don’t try to do this alone. When you’re injured, seek help …. Exercise to stay strong, if you can; defend what health you have, if you can’t. And from here on, wherever you see bigotry in the genre? Attack it. Don’t wait for it to come directly at you; attack it even if it’s hitting another group. If you won’t ride or die for anyone else, how can you expect them to ride or die for you? Understand that there are people in this genre who hate you, and who do not want you here, and who will hurt you if they can. Do not tolerate their intolerance. Don’t be “fair and balanced.” Tell them they’re unwelcome. Make them uncomfortable. Shout them down. Kick them out. Fucking fight.

This post should end there. But the WisCon evening follows the Guest of Honor speeches with the Tiptree Award presentation, and N.A. Sulway, winner of this year’s Tiptree Award for her novel, Rupetta, had to follow it, so I won’t cheat. Nike brought in a third voice, perhaps the most directly body-image related of the three. She talked about her novel is, in some ways, a response to Rene Descartes, the philosopher who exemplifies the “mind is more important than body” line of thought of his time.

Rupetta is in some sense a book about compromised mothering. About non-conforming mothers. About mothers who are separated from their children. About grief. And longing.

My first wish is that we—and by we here I mean feminists—learn to speak about mothering in new, honest, complex and powerful ways. Not as an essential aspect of femininity, because it is not that, or as a biological right, but as a process we, as women, are often part of; a process many of us experience as both a source of power, and a means of oppression. As an intimate and deeply private process, and a very public role.

Descartes is, of course, perhaps most famous for the ideas he laid down in his Discourse on the Method and Principles of Philosophy. It is here that he decides that the only thing we can know without any doubt is that we are thinking beings.

That we think, and therefore we are.

My second wish is that we will continue and finally complete the work of undoing the false assumption expressed so powerfully by Descartes that it is our minds—our intellects—that are our only Truth. That our bodies are merely the vessels in which we live. I want to find a way to convince you to understand that we think with our bodies, and feel with our minds.

My third and final wish is that, one day, we will find a way to encounter the new, the unfamiliar or uncanny, without fear or superstition or terror. That we will not, in that moment when the stranger sits up and turns to us, hurl stones or throw them overboard. But instead find a way to open our minds and hearts and embrace that strangeness on its own terms. With courage, and grace, and full acceptance.

Story, rage against injustice, and integration of the body and mind. Or, for those of us who were sitting there, the voices of three extraordinary women.

Photographs In 2014 National Queer Arts Festival

Laurie says:

I’m delighted to have 2 of my nude portraits in Body, body, bodies, a feature exhibition of the 2014 National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco.

One is of my friend Tee Corinne (taken shortly before her death in 2006). Tee was a groundbreaking Lesbian erotic artist whose works included The Cunt Coloring Book, her solarized erotic photographs of lesbians,  and her remarkable final project Scars, Stoma, Ostomy Bag, Portacath: Picturing Cancer In Our Lives.


Tee Corrine


The other is of Samuel R Delany, from my photo suite Familiar Men: A Book of Nudes. From his earliest books as a science fiction writer, his work included issues of sexuality, ethnicity, race and gender, including polyamorous love. He brought queerness into the future.

… It was at this point that Delany began dealing with sexual themes to an extent rarely equaled in serious writing. Dhalgren and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand include several sexually explicit passages, and several of his books such as Equinox (originally published as The Tides of Lust, a title that Delany does not endorse), The Mad Man, Hogg and Phallos can be considered pornography, a label Delany himself endorses.  (Wikipedia)

He was named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction at the Nebula Awards in San Jose earlier this month.



The Bay Area has a long history of political activism that extends to this day. This history of civic engagement has nurtured visual art that pays special attention to the politics of the body as well as the body politic. For those who are denied access to traditional political means, or for those who voluntarily reject this, artists have used their own bodies as sites of political transformation or contestation.

Whether it is in performance art, installation, film/video, photography, or traditional media such as painting and drawing, artists use bodies (their own and others) as site, metaphor, and catalyst for change. This year’s exhibition presents 27 cutting edge artists who take on the body for your pleasure and edification.

This exhibition is produced by the Queer Cultural Center as a visual arts centerpiece of the National Queer Arts Festival 2014. This year’s festival theme is “Body Politic/s,” and more information about upcoming festival programming can be found here.

The opening is at the Somarts Gallery, 934 Brannan Street, in San Francisco on June 7th, from 2PM-5PM. I’ll be there and so will Deb.

5/29 – And there is a walk-through with curators and artists (open to the public) on June 14, 11am. And I’ll be there too.

Fun Before WisCon, or Men Saving Room for Cats

Debbie says:

I’ve often been tempted to blog about the various Tumblr and Instagram collections of men taking up more than their share of room on public transit. For one thing, this conversation always reminds me of the fabulous Fat Lip Readers’ Theatre, from my early days as a fat activist, talking about how fat women have the power to appreciate taking up space on public transit rather than cowering into a corner.

But in the end, I’ve always decided that there wasn’t really enough to say about the topic; (many) men take up extra space, (many) women squeeze into the smallest spaces possible.

But now, the real reason for this male behavior has been unveiled, and it’s too good not to share. They’re saving room for giant house cats!

saving room for cats 3

There are lots more at the link!

Maya at Feministing found this before I did.

Laurie and I are taking off for WisCon, and our annual one-week break from blogging at this time of year. See you next week!

Teen Mothers: Defining and Determining Their Own Communities

Laurie and Debbie say:

Probably because May has Mother’s Day in it, it’s also “National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month,” which might as well be called “National Hand-Wringing Month.”  To talk about teen mamas, let’s start by remembering that the teen birth rate has declined almost continuously over the past 23 years. In 1991, the U.S. teen birth rate was 61.8 births for every 1,000 adolescent females, compared with 29.4 births for every 1,000 adolescent females in 2012. In addition, nearly 20% of these teen births are young women having second babies, so the number of teen mothers is even smaller.

Many of these teen mothers are 17-19, ages that at the younger end are considered adulthood in many cultures, many places around the world, and many communities in the U.S. At the older end, these women are simply adults. Marriage at 18 without parental permission is legal in 49 of the 50 U.S. states, and with parental permission it can be legal as young as 14. Many teen mothers are married. Laurie was not far out of her teens (21), and married, and a successful businesswoman who had been financially independent for years, when she had her first child, and (to say the least) has no regrets.

Nonetheless, the most talked-about and criticized case is the unwed pregnant teen, who chooses to have and raise the baby. People make this decision based on all kinds of familial, cultural, and financial influences, and it is a decision that is frequently shamed and rarely respected. Mary Louise Kuti-Schubert and Natasha Vianna have something to say about what this is like.

Before our high school graduations, we were juggling the internal and external difficulties of being teens while flourishing into devoted young mothers raising babies. It was incredibly hard to be a teen and harder once adding the role of loving caregiver, but we also knew it was rewarding. We imagined how difficult it would be to give birth and raise a child, like any parent, but were dedicated to our mamahood….

From needing to use a WIC card at the grocery store only to face rude stares or having to leave school early to pick up your child only to be greeted by glares of disappointment that it took you so long to arrive, there was always something. There is this high expectation that we need to do it all alone, yet we are held to these low expectations of what we’re actually capable of doing.

This is the classic description of a “double bind,” a rope around your wrists that tightens painfully whichever direction you move in. Move towards your schooling, and you’re a bad mother (“we knew you’d be a bad mother; you’re too young”). Move toward your baby and you’re irresponsible (“we knew you couldn’t hack your schoolwork with a baby”).

Kuti-Schubert and Vianna conclude, as so many people in double binds have concluded before them, that building, maintaining, and relying on community is the only answer:

Having the ability to virtually connect with mamas and allies who were ready and willing to listen and support us have been a crucial part of redefining and improving our community. We aren’t limited to our physical environment but can turn to each other at any time for some guidance, for some advice, or just to talk.

And through our experiences, we know there are times when the support we needed to keep pushing only came from one person or one organization, but this patronage helped us so much. Our motivation to be good parents could be fully ignited when we have that boost of confidence from our community and ourselves.

What young mothers need is two-fold: respect, and support. That’s why it’s so terrific to see these young mothers speaking for themselves, demanding and expecting the respect they deserve, and creating and nurturing their own support.

Thanks to Veronica Bayetti Flores at Feministing for the pointer.

Links Return After Long Absence

Debbie says:

First we had website problems, then I was not collecting links, but now we’re back on track.

I love these “end the awkward” ads from Scope: About Disability, a British organization.

If you follow through from the ad to the quiz, you eventually get to this very useful basics list, great for people who don’t have experience with people with disabilities, and great for PWD who don’t want to keep answering the same questions all the time.

While we’re in quiz mode, this is the funniest, best-written feminist quiz/humor piece Laurie and I have seen in a long time, written by Heben Nigatu, Alanna Okun, and Jessica Probus, all staffers at Buzzfeed. It’s 64 questions long (and still worth the time)! Here’s a brief sample:

Have you ever:

  • Complimented a man as surprisingly “articulate.”
  • Referred to a movie that jacks off to men’s subjectivity as a “dick flick.”
  • Talked over a man in a meeting, because what does he know, right?

At least in our circles, the Hollywood-is-destructive conversation circles around what women have to do to their bodies to succeed, but men are hardly immune. Alan Bostick guest-blogged this topic for us many years ago, and if things have changed, they’ve changed for the worse. J. Brian Lowder writes in Slate about an article by Logan Hill for  Men’s Journal (quotations are from Hill’s article):

Now objectification makes no gender distinctions: Male actors’ bare asses are more likely to be shot in sex scenes; their vacation guts and poolside man boobs are as likely to command a sneering full-page photo in a celebrity weekly’s worst-bodies feature, or go viral as a source of Web ridicule. A sharply defined inguinal crease – the twin ligaments hovering above the hips that point toward a man’s junk – is as coveted as double-D cleavage. Muscle matters more than ever, as comic-book franchises swallow up the box office, in the increasingly critical global market. (Hot bodies and explosions don’t need subtitles.) Thor-like biceps and Captain America pecs are simply a job requirement; even “serious” actors who never aspired to mega-stardom are being told they need a global franchise to prove their bankability and land Oscar-caliber parts. …

There’s lots more (including a lot about steroids and human growth hormone), and it’s all worth reading, in an upsetting way.

Laurie has been reading Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, which is high on my to-read list. This article about Iranians, by Alex Shams for the Ajam Media Collective, made her think of how Painter conceptualizes whiteness, and it is also thought-provoking in its own right.

As a light-skinned, biracial Iranian-American, however, the supposedly clear lines dividing White from [people of color] POC are a bit difficult for me to parse. On one hand, I almost always pass as just White, and rarely if ever experience the feeling of being targeted, singled out, or discriminated against based on my looks alone. Despite increasingly bushy eyebrows, my light skin tone has long ensured that I enjoy substantial racial privilege for my ability to pass as (fully) White.

Passing as White meant I looked like “the norm” and was never made to feel out of place, saw people who looked like me whenever I turned on the television, and never had to fear or suspect that negative experiences I had were a result of racism (among many other privileges I enjoyed). I knew for certain that my father’s ability to pass as a well-tanned White man had ensured his own ability to succeed professionally at a time when his Iranian name had closed many doors. I was sure of this because his ability to pass, as well as my own, meant that we were both “privileged” to hear the secret racist and Islamophobic comments directed towards others that happened in the lily-white boardrooms and classrooms that we each navigated.

And yet the more I spoke with White folks about race, the more I began to understand that many of my experiences of bullying throughout childhood were directly tied to my ethnicity in ways I hadn’t previously realized. As obvious as it now sounds, it had never occurred to me before that being harassed for supposedly being a terrorist or being called “Saddam” or “Osama” in middle school hallways was not a universal experience for American children, and that these experiences were not merely unpleasant but were in fact definitively racist.

Everyone with a conscience, and/or a heart, and any involvement whatsoever with the news, is concerned about the kidnapped Nigerian girls and the standoff with Boko Haram. Without in any way detracting from the important part (these girls are in dreadful danger!), this very thoughtful piece by Caperton at Feministe, looks at both sides of how “hashtag activism” interacts with local terror and cultural standoff.

What #BringBackOurGirls won’t do

  • Spur direct individual activism.
  • Give you a place in the tragedy.
  • Spread understanding.

What #BringBackOurGirls can do: Keep the eyes of the world on rescue efforts (or lack thereof).

Caperton expands usefully on each of these points.

Last but not least (except in the eyes of many scientists), George Dvorsky at io9 writes about a scientific paper by Malin Ah-King, Andrew B. Barron, and Marie E. Herberstein, “Genital Evolution: Why Are Females Still Understudied?” Dvorsky draws on a PLOS (Public Library of Science) blog post by Roli Roberts who summarizes the reason for the (quite significant) discrepancy between studies of vaginas and studies of penises:

a)      Biological: Female genitalia don’t vary enough to drive evolutionary change.

b)      Practical: They do vary, and do drive evolution, but are devilishly hard to study.

c)       Intellectual: They do vary and drive evolution, and can be studied, but the field is intellectually blinkered.

When I was growing up, we called this kind of argument:

a) I didn’t borrow it.

b) It was broken when I borrowed it.

c) It was in perfect shape when I returned it.

Most usual sources: Feministe, Feministing, io9, and Shakesville. This time, Kerry Ellis sent us the Scope videos, and nancylebov found the men-in-Hollywood article.





Julia Margaret Cameron: The Art of Imperfection

Laurie says:

I wish I could say that my work was influenced by Julia Cameron’s portraits.  I’ve seen a fair number of the originals and I admire them a great deal.   But I didn’t find her work until my portrait style had been long established.  I think it’s possible that if I had discovered her earlier she might have had a real effect on my work. I became a photographer when I was 47 with no previous experience.  Cameron became one at 48 with a similar lack of experience.  We also share. among other things, an unrelenting focus on our work. She was a member of the British colonial aristocracy so clearly we have only aspects of our art in common. All of the quotes are from Anthony Lane’s review of her work at an exhibition at the Met.  It’s well worth reading all of it.  The link to the museum’s slides of her portraits is here.

..In 1863, however, there was a lull. Charles {her husband} was away in Ceylon, as were two of the couple’s sons. Julia was lonely (“I assume vivacity of manner for my own sake as well as for others,” she said, in a gust of candor), and one of her daughters gave her a present to keep her spirits up, adding, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude.” The gift was a camera. She was forty-eight years old. Being given a camera, in the eighteen-sixties, especially if you were a woman, was like being given a new Mini nowadays: the latest boxy object, practical and fun (“It may amuse you”), lending dash to your existence and allowing you to see more of your friends. What Cameron got, in fact, was two wooden boxes, one of which slid inside the other, with a French lens of fixed aperture. Images were recorded on a heavy, rectangular glass plate—the film of its day—measuring eleven inches by nine. In 1866, when the bug had bitten deep, she upgraded to an even bulkier piece of kit, which took plates of fifteen by twelve. Not only would a Mini be easier to operate. It would be easier to carry.

She understood that perfection is not what great work is about, contrary to the dominant schools of 20th century photography.


portrait of Julia Jackson

Julia Jackson

“I felt my way literally in the dark thro’ endless failures,” she stated in a letter of February, 1864. Her hands, not to mention her table linen, grew black and brown with chemicals, among them potassium cyanide, used to remove excess developer. She persevered, printing a negative that more finicky artists would have thrown away. One of her best-known images from that year, a portrait of the teen-age actress Ellen Terry, entitled “Sadness,” was patched up, rephotographed, and reissued in 1875, but I prefer the original (the J. Paul Getty Museum has a fine example), with a gaping black triangle in the lower half where the collodion peeled away from the glass. It tells us what Cameron believed was worth preserving, and what wounds could be borne in that cause. Similarly, at the Met, look at “Sappho” (1865), in which one of her housemaids, Mary Hillier, is posed in profile, wearing a richly embroidered dress, and you will witness a torn white line running from the left-hand border, imprinted by an angry crack in the plate. Do we think the less of this study in dignity, or do we see past such flaws, or through them, much as we accept them in somebody we love?

And she understood that the vision is in the eye of the artist and not an abstract standard of what is “right”.  And she had the necessary complete confidence in her vision.


portrait of Alice Liddell

Alice Liddell (of Wonderland)

..Then, there is the fuzzy matter of focus. Nothing in Cameron’s legacy is fought over with more gusto (“It is not the mission of photography to produce smudges,” one thunderous rival photographer wrote), and nothing in her own pronouncements is more abrupt than the challenge she put to Sir John Herschel in a letter: “What is focus—& who has a right to say what focus is the legitimate focus?” Herschel was highly qualified to enlighten her, being not just “an illustrious and revered as well as beloved friend” and, like his father, William, a leading astronomer but also a photographic pioneer, who discovered hypo (still used as a fixer to stabilize negatives and prints), and was the first to employ the word “negative” in this sense. But Cameron, as usual, was not expecting a reply. Scorning the “definite focus” desired by other practitioners, she preferred to stop focussing when she arrived at “something which to my eye was very beautiful,” an assertion that has encouraged later commentators to wonder about her eyesight. Even when she changed cameras and switched to a lens with a movable aperture, she chose to keep it at its widest, which meant a shallow depth of field—one thin plane of focus, with everything in front of it and behind it slipping into a haze. Factor in the lengthy exposure time, which forced Cameron’s sitters to attempt immobility—described by one of them as “torture”—and you realize how precarious the search for clarity must have been. But what exactly did she wish to make clear? Her most perceptive biographer of recent years, Victoria Olsen, gets the balance right: “Cameron could make perfectly focused images but she did not always want to.” Herschel himself sat for Cameron, over two days in 1867. In one shot, she homed in on the most precise of focal points: the stubble on the old man’s chin. (Too wise for vanity, he said that it “beats hollow everything I ever liked in photography before.”) The Met has two more results from that sitting, very like one another, and less sharp. The rheumy eyes that have seen stars—Herschel had already published his “General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars”—are the lens’s target, yet, despite being viewed not through a telescope but from a few feet away, they are in a mist.

Herschel is encumbered with no props; nothing gives a clue to his labors or a hint of his formal eminence. All we have is a face, emerging from blackness and staring at us with gentle perplexity, sad and unsevere, as though inquiring into the origin of our species. As Cameron wrote to a friend, “The history of the human face is a book we don’t tire of, if we can get its grand truths, & learn them by heart.” A white neckerchief encircles the sage’s throat, rhyming with the messy halo, like a solar flare, around his head. The happiest rumor surrounding this majestic photograph is that its maker prepared the way, shortly beforehand, by getting the great man to wash his hair.

portrait of Sir John Herschel

Sir John Herschel

Her portraits vividly capture the individually of her subjects.  (She photographed many of her famous friends.) The character of many of her photographs of women are strong and vivid and are a powerful contradiction to Victorian stereotypes. Although, we are not seeing what her contemporaries saw. We are seeing brilliant work in the context of our time.

Cameron’s work, unusually for me, makes me feel like I’ve touched another photographer across time.

A Personal Food History

Lynne Murray says:

Virgie Tovar,  MA, lecturer on fat discrimination and body image, editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion, recently posted  about an encounter with a fast-food slogan.

This afternoon as I was walking to get a fancy sammich, I passed a smooshed up cup from Jack in the Box left by the wayside next to the sidewalk.

“Make a late night foody call,” it read.

First, the pun loving nerd in me thought: “Punny! Two thumbs up!”

Second, the scholar in me thought: “Fascinating! They’re conflating fast food and fast sex yet again. I have to include this in a lecture.”

Third, the foodie in me thought: “Grrr. Don’t fast food companies get that they’re the reason that foodies even exist?”

And it was this third reaction that stopped me in my metaphorical tracks (but not in my real tracks because, girl, I was hungry). I felt this sense of shame and guilt for feeling an actual modicum of aggression against Jack in the Box’s marketing department for daring to take the name of the foodie in vain.

Internalized classism much?

Tovar reflects that she …

grew up in a household where my Mexican grandma cooked nearly every meal: usually chicken, soups, and pasta, and menudo and tamales on holidays…. At school I coveted my friend’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and their Fruit by the Foot, which seemed like food diamonds compared to my perpetual tuna fish and apple. To me, the sandwiches and processed, hermetically sealed, fruit flavored, puppy-shaped gelatin snacks that some of my friends had represented everything about being American – and to a certain extent, everything about being white – that I didn’t feel. Those were the snacks on TV and in the movies I watched. Not tuna and apples.

Tovar’s description of her first steps into foodie-ness and how it related to her culturally and as a fat woman inspired me to contemplate my own “food history recollection sequence.”

We never went to restaurants; my mother worked in food service, so that’s one way class plays into my early relationship with food.

One of my earliest memories is standing in the backseat of the car while my mother drove and my father sat in the front seat testing her on menu items from a new job she was about to start as a carhop. For those who don’t know, carhops would take an order from a car parked around a restaurant hub and deliver the order on metal tray that attached to the car’s open window. My recollection includes how pretty my mother looked in the blue-gray trousers and  uniform jacket (no roller-skates).

Later, in Fairbanks, Alaska (still in the 1950s), my mother worked in an office and took a lot of flack from her Midwestern relatives for rarely cooking “from scratch.” We ate canned soup, frozen or canned vegetables, hamburgers or canned salmon or tuna patties with saltine crackers and eggs mixed in. Baked goods from biscuits to pancakes came from a box of Bisquick. I can’t remember seeing a cookbook in the house. My mother either memorized or improvised her recipes for special occasions: spaghetti with meatballs, beef roast (or heart) cooked in the oven in a covered pot with potatoes and carrots. Deep fried chicken with cornbread from a mix and cherry Jell-O with walnuts and fruit cocktail suspended in it.

The closest I came to learning how to cook was stirring Jell-O pudding or cake mix. I also knew how to put saltines, margarine and honey together when left to my own devices. Around Christmas my mother would enlist my friends and I–and after my brother got old enough his friends also–to roll out sugar cookie dough, use cookie cutters to create trees, Santas and reindeer. We applied white frosting tinted with food coloring and decorated them with red, green and silver sprinkles  After the holiday cookies were gone, back to the Jell-O.

I was a timid kid and didn’t go to dinner or stay over at other kids’ houses. When I was eight or nine, I did go for lunch to the home of my closest friend. No adults were around, and Sharon fried us some eggs using bacon grease stored in a Crisco container at the back of the stove. She poured the excess grease back in the can. I was most impressed. Sharon came to stay with us when her parents went back to the mining camp where they worked. She brought along a bag of dried split peas as her contribution to the household. They stayed in the cupboard for the duration. The only peas on our menu were frozen green peas.

Food was wrapped up with issues of being not good enough even before I turned 9 and the dieting began. The first warning came when I found my parents ordering my clothes for school from the Chubbettes section of the Sears catalog. My mother had her own body image issues and she was made to feel more of a failure because 1) she had a fat child and 2) she didn’t have the approved housewifely skills to sew my clothes to fit.

Enter a doctor with a diet sheet and a prescription for amphetamines. My father rarely got involved with meal preparations but dieting combined his taste for problem-solving with his interest in experimentation, We began to attempt one fad diet or another as a family activity (another place my food history was affected by class). Thus began a 20-year-long trip on the Disneyland diet ride from hell. I learned to see food as an adversary. I would briefly restrict what I ate according to whatever diet denomination we were embracing. The things that tasted good and made food enjoyable always were in at least one forbidden camp (calories, carbohydrates, fats). I would always fall off the diet wagon, until it came round again for another trip. None of these experiments in deprivation produced actual, sustainable weight loss.

Diets never do.

When I left home and moved to San Francisco I encountered cheap ethnic food, from fish and chips to ramen. Money was tight, so when I did diet in those years (less than I had at home) I went for the least expensive possible: brown rice, tofu, canned spinach and cottage cheese. Watching friends cook taught me some new things: Who knew that fresh mushrooms rather than canned could be used in spaghetti sauce or that other vegetables beside iceberg lettuce could go in salads?

I made a serious effort to learn to cook when I moved in with my late husband, Charlie.  Ironically, I met Charlie’s friends the day after I met him. He asked me to lunch the day we met. The lunch involved hummus (he was a starving law student but he had a coupon). When he learned where I lived, he invited me to dinner the following night at his friends Keith and Peggy’s place, a few blocks away. I didn’t learn till years later that he never warned them that he had asked me. It was typical of Charlie’s charm and unshakable confidence in the Vickers’ Southern hospitality that he could rest serene in the knowledge that they would welcome me and Peggy would be able to stretch whatever delicacy she was preparing to fit another guest.

Peggy’s cooking was a revelation. I had never before tasted fettuccini Alfredo. I watched her make it from scratch. Eating it was an ecstatic, almost religious experience. When I started living with Charlie, I sought out books and learned from Peggy’s high level cooking.

Over the years, I’ve been to a few delightful restaurants as a guest of generous friends, but never come close to being foodie or even a skilled cook. I’ve changed the ingredients in what I eat in response to variable income situations and different sorts of illness. Later as I discovered fat acceptance and intuitive eating, I began to focus on listening to exactly what my body wanted and giving it as much as possible of that. This was a long process, with much self-doubt: Could my body could be trusted? Was I doing the wrong thing?

Tovar concludes her Foodie post:

For me my “special” or “fancy” food means a lot of things. Sometimes it’s the momentary respite, the unabated pleasure of a delicious, perfectly made thing that makes me feel completely in my body and free and special and safe. Sometimes it is the myth that I am better than the people who hate me. Sometimes it is the pure bravado of eating a treat that people who look like me were never meant to enjoy.

The wounds of body hatred heal slowly and the body-hostile atmosphere we live in makes it a challenge to keep them from getting re-infected.  But I can say with confidence that my relationship with food has been reclaimed and transformed into a respectful, healing, loving one.

I hope you’ll share your food history recollection sequence in the comments.

My Body Is Not an Apology: Fostering Radical Self-Love

Laurie and Debbie say:

This year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, and one of the most gratifying experiences we’ve had in these two decades is watching the explosion of other artists and activists developing the same artistic, social justice, and self-delight themes we were (and still are) committed to.

The Body Is Not an Apology is a particularly fine example of the great work being done today.

The Body Is Not An Apology is a global movement focused on radical self love and body empowerment. We believe that each time one of us unapologetically owns our beauty, loves our scars, heals our shame; we in turn give others permission to do the same! We believe that discrimination, social inequality and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others. Through education, personal transformation projects and community building, The Body is Not An Apology fosters global, radical, unapologetic self love which translates to radical human action in service toward a more just and compassionate world.

We were particularly struck by Natalie E. Illum’s post from last week, “Why I No Longer Apologize for My Crutches.”

Natalie Illum at her piano

Illum, who has cerebral palsy, recounts some of her history with her disabled body. Please read the whole post; it has much more than we can capture here.

I didn’t really think in terms like beautiful/ugly or shame/confidence. I knew that my disability was permanent and that I was a financial and physical burden to my family. Those were the facts. I was sometimes told I looked nice, but I didn’t expect to hear words like beautiful or stunning associated with any part of my body. Ever. Those words were for able-bodied people.

Illum walking down a hall with crutches

Through her experiences as a slam poet, she recounts meeting some remarkable women, including Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of The Body Is Not an Apology, and later Denise Jolly, who invited her into the #Be Beautiful Project:

[The project] is based largely on a series of “selfies.” I knew I couldn’t stage a photo shoot alone: my hands often shake and my knees lock when I try to hold any type of camera or phone. So we did the best thing we could to accommodate our strengths and abilities: we collaborated. I wanted to assert my body in places I felt most comfortable and safe in Washington, DC, such as the Black Cat’s elevator, The Fridge DC, and my apartment. I also wanted to capture the everyday moments that make me feel most disabled: tying my shoes, balancing in the shower, and getting up after a fall. …

Yes, these photos are revealing – intentionally revealing – and celebratory. Okay, I’ll admit it: they are sexy. Because, why not?! They are the thing itself: my body, as it is now. I cannot separate my body from the cerebral palsy that came with it. I do not want to. Throughout each photo shoot, Denise kept repeating, Natalie, you are beautiful; that shot was amazing; just wait until you see yourself. I wish I could say that to every person who needs a wheelchair or braces or a catheter or a personal care attendant:You are beautiful. I know. The Body is Not an Apology. I promise.

The description of Jolly as photographer reminds Debbie so much of modeling for Women En Large, about which she said:

I took off my clothes for [Laurie] and listened to her murmur with pleasure as she worked. In fact, what she was probably saying was, “That’s beautiful, you’re amazing, wait until you see yourself.” This is why modeling for Women En Large was transformative for so many women, and modeling for the #Be Beautiful Project is similarly transformative.

In 20 years, we have come both closer to, and further away from, a world in which bodies are not apologies. Through the work of Sonya Renee Taylor and Denise Jolly and thousands of other activists, artists, and allies, we we can imagine actual victory, can think of everyone loving our bodies as an achievable goal.

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