Category Archives: feminisms

The Politics of Performing Self-Care

Self-care has become something of a fashionable topic recently; I see posts and tweets about the importance of self-care on academic twitter weekly, if not daily. A quote from Audre Lorde’s Burst of Light (1988) is often punted around; “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

It is a beautiful quote. Burst of Light is a beautiful book, an important one. Sara Ahmed’s blog post on Selfcare as Warfare is one you should read before going any further, because she makes clear how self-care is an important political project, particularly for women of colour. I am not disagreeing with that. Self-care is important. Self-care is an important political act. But at the same time, self-care is being used as a panacea. Feeling a bit down this January? Self-care! Got a cold? Self-care! Working 80+ hours a week? Self-care! Precarious employment? Self-care! And in all of these situations, self-care remains important. Self-care enables us – or at least that is the intent – to get back up and carry on, to reestablish our buffers against neoliberalism, racism, sexism, ableism, our own weaknesses and losses. To fight back and say that we are important.

However, in reminding us to care for ourselves – to put on our own oxygen mask before helping others – the critical details are lost.

Self-care, like all care, is work. Sometimes it is hard work, costly emotional labour. It might not seem particularly like work, especially from the outside – because self-care quite often takes the form of not doing more “proper” forms of work, or at least that is the perception of what it should be. Sometimes self-care really does take the form of sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea and a romance novel (or your mental screensaver of choice). But focusing on self-care as obvious relaxation ignores other ways self-care can occur; it might involve cooking from scratch (consuming time, energy, and money), walking (requiring energy, time, and access to pleasant outdoor spaces), or hundreds of other activities positioned as beneficial to our health, all of which require us to have the time and energy to carry them out, and the relative privilege to access them.

Frequently, self-care is positioned as a break from routine. If your days are sedentary and indoors, then self-care should be active and outdoors – but this ignores the nuances of access to physical space, to the energy to go out and use that space in socially appropriate ways. And for your self-care to be recognised as such – rather than condemned as laziness or inadequacy – it should be recognisable as self-care to others. Sometimes this involves signposting, the literal telling of an audience; “I am going to take a walk in the park, this is my morning self-care!” Sometimes it is more subtle – taking a picture of the view and sharing it online, or performing your self-care in the trappings of serious leisure, wearing trainers or walking shoes.

This is not to say we should stop doing such things; it remains important to talk about self-care because in doing so, we draw attention to the need for self-care itself. We just need to be a little more critically understanding in what we count as self-care, in including those acts of care that are not clearly acts of leisure or relaxation – acts that are more obviously self-care work. A morning spent checking all the bills have been paid, and balancing your budget for the coming months is not particularly relaxing – but it is important self-care, especially for those of us who work in precarious or underpaid employment, or who rely on state benefits. A trip to the chemist to fill a prescription is self-care, as is doing the grocery shopping or putting the bins out. If self-care is survival, then we must include care work as a part of it – because those invisible acts enable us to survive.

In the same way, it is important to remember that there is privilege in self-care, even though the necessity of self-care work is forced upon us by a lack of privilege. The forms of acceptable self-care, the ones easily recognised as self-care, need privilege not just to take place (due to their need for resources and performance of conspicuous leisure/relaxation), but also to be recognised as self-care. Sitting on the sofa, watching tv, needs to be contrasted with “proper” work – it must be performed by someone who is able-bodied/minded, properly employed, and “healthy”. Self-care might be performed by all, but is only recognised as such when certain people perform it. In talking of self-care, and performing conspicuous self-care, we must be aware that we are privileged, not just in having leisure time and money, but also to have our self-care recognised as leisure, not laziness.

In some ways, performing conspicuous self-care has become a part of the project of the self, a part of the discourses of risk and health. We have become required to include self-care – particularly the care of our mental health, but also our physical health and fitness – as a part of mitigating the risk of illness through performing acts of healthfulness. We must demonstrate our not because we lack privilege and are debilitated by socioeconomic processes – but to demonstrate that we are not the rejected Other; to demonstrate that we are able-bodied/minded, employed, and capable of taking care of ourself in the appropriate way (and flexible enough to do so in terms of what is emphasised at the time, whether it is colouring in for mindfulness or running for charity). Self-care is a way of demonstrating ourselves as “proper” humans, capable of conspicuously resisting debilitation. It is not so much a political act of resistance, as an act of demonstrating our humanness.

Discourses of self-care are double-edged. Resistance to power, but also a part of demonstrating our powerful position. Thus, in talking about self-care, while we might care for ourselves, we might be positioning ourselves as properly worthy of that care – and ignoring the self-care of others.

Colonialism, English language teaching, and balancing politics with love

I qualified as an EAL teacher nearly ten years ago, as a fantastically naive eighteen year old school leaver with a promise of a job for six months, and no prior work experience save for three months as a shopgirl at M&S. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing beyond teaching for a bit to fill in the rest of my “gap year”, which was otherwise filled with retaking my chemistry exam and trying desperately to get into vet school. I thought that I would teach for six months, at the school down the road from my mum’s house in Tripoli (she lived and worked in Libya at the time), then return to the UK for vet school and never teach again. I trained from a position of privilege – I didn’t need to be a good teacher, and I didn’t pay for the training course myself (my grandparents did). I was also, as this post at Media Diversified points out, more or less guaranteed work because of my status as a white “native” English speaker.

I was hugely wrong.

I did need to be a good teacher. And while I did get into vet school, as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, I didn’t stay there. So I went back to teaching in 2007 after discovering that: a) the bank of mummy, daddy, and grandparents was only willing/able to help so much (and they helped a lot, for which I am extremely grateful); b) student loans only covered so much, but April to October is a long time; c) working in a call centre really, really sucked. I’ve taught on-and-off since then, more on than off since 2010.

It turns out I actually love teaching, in a way that I only had a glimmer of in Tripoli. I love my students(even the ones I bitch about in the staffroom) I take every bit of feedback personally, and while I maintain that I don’t need my students to like me, I want them to walk out of my classroom having learnt something that they think will be interesting, useful,or both. I not only need to be a good teacher, but I want to be a better one.

We shall now pause to sing while bunnies skip and birds hang out my laundry.

English language teaching is, despite any pretences otherwise, an industry. An industry built on exploiting and maintaining English as the main language for business, science,and academia, a legacy built on colonialism. It is, to put it baldly, soft colonialism wrapped in a shiny packaging of phrasal verbs and phonetics. Welcome to learning English, pull up a chair, sit down, and learn some values. But pay first.

Teaching English is often promoted as a way to “see the world” – you pay a fee and you go out to a country in the Global South and teach impoverished kids the difference between “I went swimming” and “I have been swimming”. No qualifications needed beyond being a (white) native speaker and the money to volunteer for a few months. My route was the second – get a qualification, apply for a contract in somewhere warmer than the UK, rinse and repeat. For many of us, teaching is a way of earning money while doing something “worthwhile” – travelling, making music, art, photography, literature. It’s the false promise of neoliberalism in a nutshell – a job that isn’t too stressful (ha), that pays well enough to live on (ha), while giving you enough time to do the things you love (oh, the lols). And you’re doing something good – you’re teaching all those Other People how to Speak English, which will surely make their lives better, because English is the language of neoliberalism.

But along with the language comes the values. The bland, insipid values of the textbooks packaged to take learners from Elementary to Advanced, textbooks that take little notice of the myriad of cultures they’ll be used in, beyond occasional repackaging of soft “news” articles (“Brazilians the friendliest, says tourism industry”; “have you ever eaten insects?”) – and using respect for cultural differences as the reason for every character presented in the books being heterosexual, able-bodied, slim, gender-conforming and photogenic. And mostly white, with token “definitely not white, but smiling and Speaking English”. Characters have “English” names, nice, middle-class ones, like Tom or Claire (never Chardonnay, or Jayson). Occasional non-English names crop up, but only when attached to accented voices, usually asking for help or talking about “in my country”.

Gender differences are respected. While we learn “businesswoman”, and “Sarah is a scientist”, we never learn that “James is a stay at home dad”, or that “Richard is wearing a pink shirt”. We have wife, husband, son, daughter, but never stepmother or half-brother or “James is Richard’s husband”. Sam might use a wheelchair, but Sam is not a recurring character, he is nobody’s husband or boyfriend, and he probably does something inspiring, like raise money following a natural disaster by doing a marathon, or smiling a lot.

What I’m saying is that teaching English is problematic. It is more so if you are a POC, or a disabled person, or queer person; the system invalidates you even as you teach, and it does not give you the tools to challenge racism, sexism, dis/ableism, homophobia, and any other aggressions, micro or otherwise. Sexism while teaching in the middle east is a given. Racism in China and South Korea is par for the course. Students who assume your classes are at a lower level because you have a non-RP accent (as happened to one of my colleagues recently) are just something you have to deal with. Get over it. Deal with it. What did you expect?

What’s the solution? Well, as some have suggested, don’t take part in the system. Don’t teach abroad. (I really recommend reaching BiA’s blog, he’s got a lot to say that makes a lot of sense). But I do, very respectfully, disagree with this, but only in part. In part because soft colonialism doesn’t just happen in other countries; we practice it at “home” through the EAL industry here in the UK (and in the US and Canada). And we can challenge the industry from within as well as from without. And for teachers like me, for whom I can

First up, if you’re going to teach abroad, read Black in Asia’s 10+ Recommendations for Westerners abroad to (try and) not be completely awful. The next step, no matter where you’re teaching, is to view teaching as a learning experience – think critically about what you’re teaching, and how. Textbook doesn’t include step-parents and LGBTQ relationships? Put them in there. Make the half-sister you’ve put in that family tree a lesbian, give the uncle a husband and two kids. You could have a class full of straight people. Some of them might not be out. Present the words as part of the vocabulary – as something they may find useful.

Make your classroom a safe space. Challenge hurtful language from your students (I find this difficult, I’ll admit, especially at lower levels and with teenage learners). Encourage discussion of why that language is not ok, and encourage your students to ask questions. I had a student, a young man from South Korea, ask me (out of the blue) what the difference was between transgender and transvestite. Some of the other students laughed. I explained it, and he stood and nodded, and made notes, and one of the other students asked “what’s a drag queen?”. We had a good discussion – mostly about language, a little bit about gender and rights, and a bit about respect. Then the lesson carried on.

Use supplementary material, critically. Breaking News English has some pieces that can promote critical discussion, Film English is an excellent resource as well. I love a book called Taboos and Issues (a “mature” version of Instant Discussions), and while it needs updating, it is pretty much the only book that presents issues like racism, homophobia, and other demanding topics in a format that fits into a classroom and encourages discussion. The Headway Academic series present topics such as globalisation and environmental destruction in ways that can lead to discussion. Subversive 52 looks fantastic, and the blog is great. These are just starters – critical pedagogy isn’t a new idea, even in EAL, and there are plenty of things to read around the Dogme approach, even if there aren’t a lot of free lesson plans.

Listen to your students. Respect their opinions (even when they don’t respect yours), give them room to think. You’re not going to produce classes of critical thinkers and social justice campaigners; that’s just another form of cultural imperialism when we expect social justice to be the same in every place, and move at the same speed. Instead, you want a class who are willing and able to discuss issues, respect others, and are learning to think critically about values and ideas in English culture as well as their own. Hopefully, they might even feel confident expressing those views in English.



Rambling about gender studies

Do you remember Tom Martin, the man who is suing LSE for “anti-male bias” on its Gender Studies course? No, stop giggling at the back. He’s serious. But I’m not talking about Martin, who is frankly a bit of a twit (the moment I read he’d only been on the course for six weeks – and tweets as “the missing minister for men” – I have to admit to dismissing him as an idiot). But a conversation at uni reminded me of him.

I’m just over halfway through a gender studies masters – not at LSE, but at Birkbeck (LSE was too expensive for me, and Birkbeck suited my needs as far as disability and work), and a few weeks into a new module with a new lecturer. The students are a mix of gender studies – second year part-timers like myself and single-year full timers – and people from other courses who have chosen the module as an option (it’s compulsory for those on gender studies in the MSc stream, however). Those who’ve chosen the module are studying masters (or PhDs) in a variety of subjects, from education to identity to journalism. Basically, we’re a right mix.

Our lecturer has asked for feedback from the outset – rather than waiting for the end of term formal feedback – which is brilliant. And she’s acting on it, which is even better. Last week she brought up an issue an anonymous student had raised – that there wasn’t enough on men and masculinities in the lectures. The course is called Theorising Gender, and we do study masculinities and men, for what it’s worth – but in the relatively new field of gender studies, masculinities is a yet newer field – it really hasn’t been looked at very much or for very long, much in the same way whiteness hasn’t been studied as much when looking at race and identity. Because masculinity is so often taken as the norm – maleness as default, the man in mankind that erases everyone who doesn’t fit a mould of a particular type of hegemonic masculinity – it was seen as more important to start looking at all those experiences that have been erased and ignored, and as theories and knowledges have developed, so it has become possible to look at masculinity, now that the framework exists. As a result of the way studies of masculinity grew out of women-focused gender studies, it is really difficult to run headlong into looking at masculinity without first having at least a dabble in the earlier work. It’s like trying to read Butler while pretending Foucault never existed – or trying to make bread while ignoring the existence of wheat.

And sometimes it can appear that there is not enough on masculinities. Especially when you’re looking at the home – as a traditionally feminine area, of course most of the writing looking at the home and gender is going to look at women – but they still refer to the roles of men as well. But – and it’s a massive but – to return to the anonymous complaint, the overwhelming response was “someone hasn’t done the reading”. Required reading for the first lecture was as chapter from R.W. Connell’s 1995 book Masculinities. The other two pieces looked at both masculinities and femininities. The second week, most pieces also covered men and women – and in the case of the introduction to Gavey’s Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape (2005) was partly arguing for a reconceptualisation of rape in order to better include the experiences of male victims.

The third week – and I’m sure you’re getting the picture here – two of the four required pieces were explicitly focused on men (Gorman-Murray’s 2008 article on masculinity and the home, and Kilkey’s 2010 paper on men and migrant care), a third included men, but focused on women, and the fourth was explicitly about women – Oakley’s seminal Housewife, from 1976.

Anonymous complaining student can fuck off. And do the reading. And if they don’t like it once they’ve actually paid some attention, they can start with the recommended reading – and then move on from there. Finding books and journal articles that look at men and masculinities isn’t difficult, and frankly, as a masters student, if they haven’t learnt to use the library yet, they may wish to either do so, or have a think about what they’re doing.

And now I’ve finished rambling – I’m going to take my own advice, and do some fucking reading.

The power of penis (sorry, mother)

I’ll freely admit it: I love reading romance novels. I don’t really make any pretence at being one of those people who only ever read great literary works – I read fiction for fun, and I loathe Dickens, and while there are plenty of brilliant classics and worthy tomes, as far as I’m concerned, Georgette Heyer is just as valid as Tolstoy, and each to their own (I will judge you for liking Ulysses, though).

Having said that, being one of those dreadful feminist types, I sometimes find it hard to really balance feminism and romance novels. There isn’t really a Bechdel test for books – the original version pretty much suffices, to be fair – but I’m also in agreement with Alicia Aho’s blog on a Bechdel Test for romance novels – that it needs a little tweaking, but the essential still holds. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a precisely feminist romance novel – could you imaging the arguments over it? Would the heroine acknowledge her cis-gendered priviledge? Are lurid descriptions of sex exploitative? – but I would definitely argue that they aren’t mutually exclusive; they cater for women’s tastes in erotica, and that is feminist.

I’ve been thinking though – always dangerous, that – about romance novels and disability. In terms of heroes (men-identified cis-gendered primary protagonists? Sorry.), disability is not uncommon; thier disability is usually the result of injury. In the heroine, psychological trauma of some variety is usually featured instead of a physical disability – trauma that is usually healed by The Cock and/or The Power of Love.

I don’t make any claims to having read an exhaustive number of romance novels. I haven’t. I tend to re-read the ones I do have – I should join the library instead – but so far I’ve read two with a disabled heroine.

The first – Christine Feehan’s Dark Symphony, part of the larger Dark Carpathians series, which I adore. The heroine was blinded in a tragic accident, but she is a Super Crip, and has overcome this to become famous. And then the hero rolls up, saves her life, and then she gets her sight back after they have lots of sex, because this is a fantasy paranomal romance about vampires and shit, and they’re made for each other and all that. I don’t care, it’s still a brilliant book, but I kind of wish Antoinetta had stayed blind. But they shag anyway.

The second is much older – it was published in 1984 – Sophie Weston’s No Man’s Possession. The heroine is disabled through an accident – which ruins everything and she becomes a secretary. Because that’s what women do, especially when their fiances leave them because the’ve become cripples, and they’re heroines in a Mills & Boon paperback. Awesome. She then takes a job where she goes to Venice, and fancies her employer, and he fancies her, but he’s very mysterious and brooding, so she quits when he comes onto her. Then – miracle of miracles – she is sent to a hospital in Switzerland (the glamour) and she is cured and she gets her life back – and her former employer is her doctor who saves her and loves her and they get engaged and they haven’t had sex once. She tries – albeit vaguely – to be an independant, strong woman, but ultimately she is saved by a big strong man and is no longer crippled.

But you know what? Once, just once, I’d like there to be a disabled heroine who is not cured. Who stays disabled, despite the power of cock/love/man, and is loved nonetheless, who is strong nonetheless (but is not once of those long-suffering Heroic-Tragic Crip types, because that is a particularly disappointing stereotype). I want a feminist heroine, who happens to be disabled, who enjoys sex and love and romance, and a hero who respect her and fancies her and fucks her several ways until sunday (and is fucked in return).

I’m asking too much, aren’t I?