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The Dismissal of Womanly Pain and Pressure to be the Strong Woman

When I was thirteen, my fellow classmates made fun of my moustache and bushy eyebrows. The feminist woman I have become would like to say I ignored them and wore my facial hair with pride, but that is not what happened. I started waxing off the hairs on my upper lip and shaping my eyebrows – two things I continue to do today.

There is absolutely nothing remarkable about that. Women all over the world wax, shave, bleach and laser body hair to look smoother and more feminine. As a feminist, I have nothing against women who choose to remove body hair – after all, I do it myself – but it’s important for me to think about why I submit to the pain of waxing every month.

As I grew up from my moustached thirteen-year-old self, I started waxing other places too: my legs, my bikini line and even my toes. And it hurts. Oh, how it hurts. Why do I have to do this every month?

When I recently complained about this, someone told me: “Just don’t do it anymore, then.” That sounds pretty simple right? Just don’t obey the patriarchy. Just go to the beach with a hairy bikini line. Just look unprofessional with your bushy eyebrows. Just wear shorts and let your hairy legs show. Just make your body into a political statement.

The simplicity of that statement made me wonder about female pain and how it is often dismissed as unimportant. Both sides of this situation would bring me pain. If I own up to my body hair, I will be judged by a sexist, misogynist society. If I continue to remove it, I will have to deal with the pain of waxing and shaving and the medical issues that come with it.

This dismissal happens when going through pain to achieve smooth legs is considered normal and even required.

It happens when women are told street harassment is something they have to accept, even though women who are victims of it say they feel uncomfortable, objectified and afraid.

It happens when nine women accuse a man of abusing them, but we are still told to ‘hear both sides’.

It happens when nine out of ten women feel pain when their uterus is contracting to get rid of its lining but talking about periods and period pain is considered gross or ‘making a fuss’.

It happens when women are told they should’ve thought about the consequences of their actions when seeking abortion, even though all kinds of birth control can fail.

It happens when women are paid less but people argue that the wage gap is actually a myth.

It happens all the goddamn time.

While men are taught not to show their pain, women are routinely told their pain is not important. Women’s pain is normal because women are more emotional and hormonal, so why pay any attention to it? Often, women hide their pain away so as to not be annoying or be perceived as weak or too feminine.

We are asked to be the Strong Woman, which is an image I truly resent. No one ever says “He is a strong man” because men are presumed to be strong because of their masculinity – or the societal enforcement of said masculinity. This necessity to be a Strong Woman reinforces the idea that not being feminine and being more like men is better.

And let’s not forget that being the Strong Woman can be dangerous, speaking your mind, as a woman, can be life-threatening – on the internet or otherwise (Mary Spears was definitely strong when she told a man “no” and was killed for it). I see women who are perceived as Strong Women being harassed on the internet every day. Not to mention that a Strong Woman is often mistaken for a Bitch.

Women cannot win either way.

Shut up about Beyoncé already

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Is Beyoncé a feminist? Here’s the short answer: yes. The long answer will be a blog I am writing out of wariness because I am honestly sick of the whole discussion. Let’s be clear about this: women do not need a feminist badge that is approved by every feminist on the internet. It’s gotten to a point that Beyoncé is simply being attacked by people who have not even studied her work – which is fine, but also misleading.

Beyoncé, the studio album, is a concept masterpiece that focuses on black womanhood, sexual pleasure between two consenting, married adults, love for Beyoncé’s daughter and grief for Aaliyah. In my humble opinion it is impossible to judge her ‘feminist credentials’ (whatever the hell that is supposed to mean) without really getting to grips with the message she is trying to get across.

Sexual liberation

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Beyoncé’s album is full of explicit, sexual content that quite clearly expresses a full, satisfied sexual relationship with her husband. Yet Beyoncé gets criticized for wearing skimpy dresses, dancing suggestively and showing her sexual side.

In the song Partition, for example, Beyoncé reveals “He like to call me Peaches when we get this nasty” and “He popped all my buttons and he ripped my blouse / He Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown”, suggesting Beyoncé and her husband engage in sexual role-play (Monica Lewinski, Peaches).

Beyoncé said, about this song, to People magazine: “I was so embarrassed after I recorded the song because I’m just talking shit, I’m like, ‘I can’t play this for my husband.’ I still haven’t played it for my mom. She’s going to be very mad at me.”

Perhaps Jay Z and Bey should be ashamed of playing the widely criticized verse of Drunk in Love, “I’m Ike Turner, turn up, baby, no, I don’t play / Now eat the cake, Anna Mae said, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae!” since all thinkpieces written about it say it glamorizes domestic violence (in this case Tina Turner’s abuse by her ex-husband Ike Turner).

But it’s really important to bring context into this discussion. As I previously mentioned, the whole album has BDSM theme, heavily influence by role play. And what Jay Z and Beyoncé say before the Anna Mae bomb is very relevant:

Beyoncé: “We be all night, and everything all right / No complaints from my body, so fluorescent under these lights”

Jay Z: “Hold up, stumble all in the house, time to back up all that mouth / That you had all in the car, talking ’bout you the baddest bitch thus far / Talking ’bout you be repping that Third, I wanna see all that shit that I heard.

All accounts indicate that this is a consensual BDSM relationship. It’s curious to compare this to the 50 Shades of Grey, a widely accepted book that speaks of a non-consensual, abusive BDSM relationship (oh and let’s not forget the series of books that brought this about that also depicts an abusive relationship, Twilight), yet was read by thousands of women and accepted like it was nothing. Yet, when Beyoncé sings about a strongly consensual relationship, she is torn to pieces and the context is completely ignored – has it ever occurred to anyone that this could open the door for an honest discussion of BDSM, perhaps including the line between abuse and sexual play?

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Personally, I can say that Beyoncé has time and again liberated me sexually. Her work continuously tells me that it’s okay to love sex, to feel sexy and be sexual.

She said, about her body and showing it off: “I was very aware of the fact that I was showing my body. I was 195 pounds when I gave birth. I lost 65 pounds. I worked crazily to get my body back. I wanted to show my body.”

There’s no problem in showing off your body, as long as you don’t shame anyone in the process. Men and women with all kinds of bodies should show off their bodies, actually. But Beyoncé can’t really win: when she shows her body she is bragging, right? Or is she showing personal satisfaction with the work she put into her body?

And on her sexual freedom: “I don’t at all have any shame about being sexual and I’m not embarrassed about it and I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me because I do believe that sexuality is a power that we all have.”

How is this not a positive feminist opinion to have and declare to women all over the world?

Feminism is a personal choice

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Feminism has a perfection problem. We need certain perfections that fit in the right places to have feminist credentials, otherwise our opinions and actions are just completely invalid. This belief is a problem.

Feminism is about freedom and personal choice, not impossible standards. Impossible standards are routinely enforced by the patriarchy and enforcing it in feminism is a kind of oppression in itself. So is Beyoncé a feminist? Yes she is, because she self-identifies as a feminist and she is free to do so even if she is married, has a kid, has an amazing sex life and talks about BDSM. (Let me just point out here that one of the bigger problems I have with Beyoncé’s work is her collaborations with Terry Richardson. Again, she’s not perfect.)

And can I just say, on the subject of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s collaboration at the Grammy’s that a woman was passionately singing about her sex life with her husband and she was criticized? Women cannot win: if a woman dances with a random guy, she is a whore – and even if she dances with her husband she is a whore. Can someone please explain?

I cannot stress enough that all of us are imperfect and that the perfect feminist does not exist and will never exist. Beyoncé is not it, and she will never be.

So if you disapprove of Drunk in Love’s Jay Z lines, that’s fine. But that does not negate anyone’s ‘feminist credentials’.

“She’s only doing it for the money!”

This is one of the most tired and simplistic arguments that are often thrown at artists (mainly female pop stars) and it honestly irritates me. Let’s break this down once and for all.

Everyone needs to work to live: artists, singers, journalists, lawyers, businessmen. Everyone. Does that devalue the work you do in any way? Does earning money mean you’re a bad person because you don’t work for free, in a state of complete selflessness?

It’s not immoral to do things for money, that’s the world we live in. And it does not (and will never) devalue any of the messages Beyoncé is trying to get through to women all over the world. And maybe just her fans will listen, but you know what? That’s pretty awesome because she has awesome things to say – and as a writer I understand she should be paid for her work.

Chimamanda Adichie

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One of the most valuable things I took from Beyoncé’s new album was the book Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie. It is, at present, my favourite book and Chimamanda has a place in my heart as one of my favourite writers now (right up there with JK Rowling, and you know that’s a big deal). I am extremely grateful to Beyoncé for bringing this woman into my life.

Chimamanda’s stories are truly revelatory. They are mostly about Nigeria and the culture clashes between Africa and the Western world. I had become bored with young adult fiction and was looking for something new that didn’t sound like the same old story: Chimamanda saved me. She is truly brilliant. And for this, I declare that Beyoncé is a feminist and no matter how many think pieces you write you cannot take away her agency and self-identity.

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Court them good, Mr Cable

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This week, South America has received two distinguished visitors: UK’s business minister Vince Cable and universities minister David Willetts. Their intent is to recruit more international students to study in the United Kingdom. They want more people to study in their universities, just like I did.

Being educated in the UK was, frankly, a dream come true for me. My unimaginative motivation for this, perhaps just stereotypic enough to be plausible, was my love for English literature. More specifically, my love for Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was the first book I read entirely in English. It was a bit of a revelation; I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what kind of writer just yet, but I wanted to study where JK Rowling lived. Of course, today and when I decided to accept Sheffield’s offer, I had different and more relevant reasons to do so.

One of these reasons was the Post-Study Work Visa, an opportunity for international graduates to find work after uni by giving them an extra two years to stay in the country and seek permanent employment. I was planning to apply as soon as I possibly could, and I was so happy that going to a university in the UK was opening that door for me.

And so I went off to my adventure. It was wonderful, I learned a lot and I made friends. I built a life, I got part time jobs, I earned money. I made contacts and did a lot of networking. I did some work experience at the Independent, the Sheffield Star, the Week Magazine, and many other British publications. I applied for reporter jobs and got interviews.

Never, in my three and a half years of studying there, did I feel unwelcome.

That is, until the Post-Study Work Visa got scrapped by the Tory government. Though warned by many that this would decrease the number of international students coming from all over the world, they did it anyway. And it was scrapped five months before I graduated, which meant I couldn’t apply for it – even though I was under the impression, even before I paid my tuition, that I would be able to do so.

But then, I wasn’t. And of course, that was terrible. But the most irritating and damaging thing of all, was being treated as a statistic. Everyone was talking about it, but I didn’t hear one single student giving their opinion on mainstream media. Maybe they weren’t asked, maybe they were scared. I just want to make clear we are not ‘immigrants’ or ‘leechers’. We’re people, people who can be trusted.

And then, for the first time, I felt unwelcome. I felt unwelcome even though I had never missed a check in with the Sheffield police while I lived there, like the law says I have to do. I felt unwelcome even though I felt like I was equal to all my British friends. I felt unwanted.

Now Vince Cable is visiting my country to convince more of us to come to his country. Why? According to a BBC report, UK universities are extremely reliant on international student fees for funding – and they will become even more dependent on this income in the next few years as the UK tries to battle the financial crisis. It would all be fabulous and groovy to believe that Vince Cable is really looking to spread better education and mix up different cultures, but the truth is that it’s all about the money.

Studying abroad has its obvious attractions; a new country, the opportunity to learn in a different environment, meeting people from other nationalities, etc. Despite this seductive promise, the UK has seen a decline in the number of applicants from India by 23.5% and Pakistan by 13.4%. As for Brazil, in the academic year of 2011-2012, there were only 1,340 Brazilians studying in the United Kingdom.

Last year, the number of international applicants grew by only 1.5% – a figure analysts consider insignificant as education is a growing market. If it was all going well, the growth number would be larger.

If this wasn’t a problem for the UK, Mr Cable wouldn’t have travelled this far to recruit South American students.

Non-EU students are expected to bring in an estimated £8bn a year to British economy and 10% of universities’ funding is actually paid for by these students. It’s quite clearly a huge business, and not an effort to improve the minds of the future.

Numbers of applications are decreasing simply because the UK seems to be an unwelcoming country to foreign students. Scrapping the Post-Study Work Visa isn’t just a message to all non-EU students that they are not welcome anymore. It is an intimation that international students are cash cows.

When the students are done paying the last instalment of their tuition, they are no longer funding UK education – so please, get out of the country. No more money? No more opportunities for you. You’re disposable! We only wanted your money.

So you could say, Mr Cable, that foreigners feel unwelcome in the United Kingdom at the moment. After the visa program was cancelled, I felt shunned in a place that had previously opened its arms to me. Studying abroad is supposed to give you more, not less, opportunities. It is supposed to create a new life for students, a different one than what they had before.

If a student falls in love with Britain and wants to contribute to its society, and make it better – why not give them the chance to try and do that? If it has been proven that mere students bring in billions of pounds that help the economy, imagine what these future professionals could bring in. Diversity is good for the economy, it is the source of fresh ideas, innovative businesses, rich culture and hard-work.

But now, Mr Cable, you have a lot of work before you. Try your hardest because it’s not looking good.

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Photo by bisgovuk (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) / Flickr Creative Commons License

Keep reporting: the Boston Marathon is exactly why journalists exist.

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A bomb goes off in an international event. Blood, debris, a panicking camera man, lightning quick first responders. Seconds later, another blast.

This is how the loop of horrifying images on the news started yesterday, and it still hasn’t stopped. The same images are played over and over again, as analysts, authorities, politicians, activists, and viewers try to figure out what the hell happened in 15 seconds of a day that was supposed to be a family outing.

An act of terror. A bloody, disgraceful mess. The pavement was red.

In the middle of these horrifying scenes I have heard people say that looping the images over and over again simply validates the attacker, and many other terrorists or shooters to come. The ‘publicity’ is what these people are interested in, and by covering the death of three people and the amputation of limbs of many, many others makes attacks like this appealing to those who want to make a point.

This is no reason to stop reporting though.  Whoever did this made sure they set up the bombs in vicinity where there would be cameras, so his purpose was already accomplished by camera men who were there to film the end of the race. That was it, he caused an undeniable stir that simply could not be avoided. To stop reporting after such a boisterous display would have been wrong.

Let’s reiterate; a bomb went off in an international event.

When reporting on Newtown, CNN mistakenly showed a photo of the perpetrator’s brother as the real killer. Since then the news channel was careful not to show photos of the real shooter, so as to not give him the satisfaction of fame.

Though this is noble in itself, I also believe the families and friends of victims need to know who caused them harm, and why. Reporting on these events excessively does not encourage future incidents – these people are deeply disturbed and want to cause havoc, they want to kill people. There isn’t a real, concrete way to tell why they do it, or why they would want to do it but the simple fact that they have done it is in itself newsworthy and important to cover.

Besides obvious reasons of letting family and friends know what has happened, people who aren’t involved should know too. Why? So we can prepare for such events in the future. Though they are unpredictable incidents, there are ways of preparing measures to minimize damage and body counts – lockdowns, drills, proper training of first responders, and anything else authorities can think of.

Though it is upsetting to know there are deeply disturbed and evil people who thrive on murder, there is also a beautiful element to those who jump in to help and the reporting of these kind souls.

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If there was a diminished amount of reporting and information, people would not know about Carlos Arredondo, an example to us all. A father who has gone through the hardship of losing two sons, one in Iraq and another to suicide and the pain of carrying the burden of a peace activist who was inspired by these horrific events, he jumped right in to comfort a man who had been blasted by the bomb.

“There were so many people on the ground and I wanted to help them all,” he said, shaking. “But I just stayed with that one man, calming him down. There were so many.”

Celebrating Carlos and others who have helped save lives is important, especially when in comparison to the evil people who have done this.

In a way, the fact that no one has claimed to these atrocities might be an indication that they weren’t exactly looking for attention, but just to kill and terrorize. Hours have passed since it happened but no one has come forward and there has been no reason, ideology or motivation that was ‘publicized’ by the reporting. This is not what they want, or what any shooter wants. They want our blood.

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Photos by Wikipedia/Creative Commons License and BISH Tribune Review.

Is feminism in a thong possible?

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A few months ago I wrote an article about the faux feminism that Beyoncé is threatening the music industry with. While I still think all of those arguments are valid, a recent discussion about her GQ cover spread has sparked my need to speak about sexualization and sexual empowerment in the media – mainly in the music industry.

If you missed it, Beyoncé is staring at the camera with her mouth half open, wearing a tiny thong. Inside, she tells some hard truths about gender equality.

She said: “You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.”

It is groundbreaking that a major star like her endorses feminism – we need more people to come out and say “Hey, I am not being treated equally and that has to change.” Beyoncé is one of the most powerful women in the world, and even if sometimes I detect signs of faux feminism in her actions, she is still a good role model girls can look up to.

The music industry has never just been about music. It’s also about image and style, particularly for women. Going back a few decades, it is easy to see there are always trends and styles women developed; beehive hair, fluffed bobs and thick eyeliner, way too much black eye shadow and messy, angry bed-hair, underwear as outerwear, thick hair, straight hair, ripped clothing, flower power, etc.

The post-Madonna music industry has seen women extremely sexualized for the sake of selling music. As my friend Grace wrote a while ago, women have to fit a certain shape, size and attitude to make it big – if they don’t, tough luck. From sexual empowerment we have jumped right over to giving the power of our bodies to men and the industry once again. And seemingly, Beyoncé is still a victim of this, despite her feminist stances. Her opinions  have been completely overshadowed by the photo of her in a thong.

Though it’s fair to say that being sexy, alluding to sex or at least having a pretty face is now mandatory in the music industry, I must confess that I sometimes wonder if these women – though perhaps damaging the industry for others – feel empowered by their bodies, their outfits and style. And often, I think I have no big problem with that.

The music industry has never been just about the music. What about the rebel look of the Runaways? Diana Ross’ diva hair? Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” look? And Aretha Franklin’s soulful image? How many fake eyelashes does Adele stick on her face? What about Cher’s crazy style? These are all images that go with the music, the band, the singer. If it makes the performer happy, who cares what they are wearing, as long as you enjoy their music?

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Maybe Beyoncé’s image has been a bit misguided as it encourages and permeates patriarchy. It has been widely criticized by feminists around the world. But what keeps coming to me is that maybe – try to think with me on this one – just maybe Beyoncé wants to be portrayed as beautiful, she wants to pose in a thong and declare she’s a feminist, maybe she’s a different kind of feminist who also wants to be sexy. Maybe this is Beyoncé just being herself. She knows sex sells and she’s using it with all her power. So what?

Feminism is about choice and awareness. Beyoncé clearly knows that she dresses herself up because of an idea of beauty much constructed by the patriarchy. But the same goes for you and probably most women – why do you put on make-up? Why do you hide your ‘imperfections’? Why do you wear the clothes you wear? I’ll tell you why: because of a culture of patriarchy, perfection and consumerism. That being said, I don’t think you have to stop doing what you do to express yourself, or make yourself feel good about yourself because of this. I think we need to be conscious of where the pressure is coming from and why – and act on it in our own way.

The sexualization of the media is not Beyoncé’s problem – if this were the case it would be every woman who ever posed for a magazine cover’s problem too. The issue lies with the people who make the media such a misogynistic place to be, who make it a place prone to this kind of marketing. The real problem are the people who ignore talent over shape and size of body, the people who see women artists as less because they take time putting on make-up, because they take care to perform, not just sing. The people who shun artists who look different and don’t fit into a standard of beauty; those people are the problem.

We have to stop blaming each other, judging each other, and strive for unity between ourselves – all women are different and all women make different choices. If Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and whoever else use their sex appeal to sell music, I don’t see a problem with it. The way you dress, the way Rihanna dresses – none of it matters if you understand the issues behind it, if you understand that the world isn’t perfect for us just yet, and that there are equality issues we have to work on. I am 100% guilty of judging Beyoncé for trying to look so perfect, so beautiful. But with her recent feminist rant I realize she is not so far from reality as I previously thought. I was wrong: she knows girls don’t run the world! And it seems that she wants them to.

So please, do not devalue a woman’s statement on equality because she is sexy, confident and powerful – and isn’t afraid to show it.

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Photos by mp3waxx.com and pinkBEAT / Flickr Creative Commons License.