September 7, 2010 § Leave a comment
I suppose I’ve reached my saturation point on a certain sort of feminist art; nope, I do not find miniskirts and bikinis and makeup liberating. You can feel oppressed by seeing a woman in hijab; I can feel oppressed by hotsy-totsy dustjacket photos of women writers. It’s where we come from, I guess.
This was written in the Arabic Literature (in English) blog in response to a profile on Joumana Haddad; something about those words made me want to stand up and applaud, except that I was sitting alone in front of my laptop and I already get enough strange looks from my dog when I talk to myself.
These words are not new or revolutionary, but it sort of triggered something new in me. Let me call it the Treatise on the Objection to the Wearing of High Heels, Particularly When It Applies to Myself. I have made my peace with make-up; by which I mean that I have learned that using it whenever you want to use it is basically fun, and by which I also mean that sometimes like me, you, and everyone I know, I succumb to societal pressure and wear it when I have to Face The World in important ways – job interviews, weddings, stalking hot men. Sometimes, railing against societal constructs is just exhausting, especially since I belong to and participate in society. It’s the bloody crisis of humankind, isn’t it? To rail against, then succumb.
There may be hypocrisy to why I object to high heels more than make-up, I freely admit. I have not yet learned how to make sense of and reconcile these hypocrisies. This is why I have a blog.
It’s wearying, having to defend my decision to not want to wear high heels to certain women, in particular, who identify as “feminist” (understandably a loaded and undeniably tainted word, in my respects) and who, for example, will vociferously defend the right of, say, a Muslim woman to wear or not wear the hijab or niqab. However, these same women will try to exhort you, quite forcefully in fact, to wear high heels. And if you tell them how you’ve worn them in the past and you could care less whether they made your calves look slimmer and your butt perkier, how it hurt and felt uncomfortable and that you hate how unfriendly they feel on your feet after a few hours, they tsk-tsk and shake their heads and say, “Subashini, you simply need to practice wearing them. They’re sexy! They make every woman look thinner! It looks professional!” and so on. And on, and on, and on. But more important, there is that exhortation to practice wearing them.
Well, if I really, really, really wanted to wear high heels, I probably would practice wearing them, like practicing ballet or piano or dribbling a football or, you know, other types of skilled activities that can give one immense contentment. But if I really, really, really find them uncomfortable and dislike the pain that follows after a few hours of wearing them, and if I admit to this discomfort and dislike, it somehow implies a distinct laziness on my part. For not practising wearing high heels enough and refusing to make the effort.
Well, I shake my fist at you, damn you, and tell you that I feel oppressed by high heels. I feel browbeaten by the tyranny of high heels. Take that, feminine feminist. Take that, fashionable person. Take that, Victoria Beckham. I’m not telling you that you should feel oppressed by high heels. I’m saying that I am, which does not mean that I’ll always and forever NOT wear them, but I’ll probably very rarely wear them. But if you want to wear them, and run in them, and do whatever you want in them, please go right ahead. But do stop telling me that I have to wear them.
(So much for being objective. This is an extended personal rant to all the people of my past who tried to force me to wear high heels. You know who you are. May you, for one week, dream nightly of sharp stilettos poking into your ribs.)
Which brings me back to the initial quote about Joumana Haddad. I know very little about Joumana Haddad, and the first I heard of her was via this profile in The Guardian. While I find some of her pronouncements quite troubling, I won’t say very much about it because other folks with a strong sense of the Arab context have already done so.
What troubled me more was the journalist’s approach, which certainly became uncritically breathless when it arrived at the subject of Joumana’s physical presence. Beautiful or no, flamboyant or no, it seems that people who want to make a point about feminists! who are beautiful and feminine, too! are just further contributing to the ridiculous notion that beautiful, feminine women who are committed to women’s issues are somehow more special or worthy of note. Like, you know, it’s so predictable that ugly women will be feminists, but a hot! flamboyant! one! How rare a specimen! *breathless* Which is all the more ironic when you read the article, because it seems like Joumana herself seems to be exactly the kind of person who would object to such reductive representations.
Being comfortable with one’s body doesn’t necessarily correlate with being able to wear “sexy” clothes. Being comfortable with one’s body doesn’t necessarily correlate to being comfortable with one’s thoughts. Displaying one’s body explicitly at all-times in skin-revealing clothes doesn’t necessarily translate to being comfortable with one’s body any more than being a pedantic, patronising loudmouth makes one patently comfortable with one’s thoughts.
I mean, if being liberated in one’s thoughts and spirit, and being comfortable with oneself and one’s body can be easily achieved by wearing lipstick, or a miniskirt, or a tube top, or high heels, or letting your hair down, then we would all of us be free. Free, at last!
I will celebrate this moment with another pair of flats soon. Very soon.
(The title of this blog post owes its existence, somewhat, to Joyce Carol Oates.)
September 5, 2010 § Leave a comment
Eyebrows. I’m thinking of eyebrows as I continue to read Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Other Essays. It’s a book to savour, because I really like going over her prose – it’s so clean, precise and economical. It’s so confident. Even when she goes off on another tirade about what art is and what art is not and you want to go, “Oh, Susan, hush!”, you can’t stop reading. How can you not enjoy reading a writer who thinks her way through everything? Even if, had we ever met, she would have most likely seen me as a little human cockroach.
But the reason for the eyebrows is that every so often, I’ll read a few sentences, and then stop. Inevitably, I’ll hold the page with my finger and turn to stare at the cover. I was mesmerised by those formidable eyebrows. How many women these days allow themselves to maintain their bold, strong eyebrows? I look around at the women in Kuala Lumpur and I see sameness even when the faces are far from similar – and I suspect this has to do with the Tyranny of the Characterless Eyebrow. On (mostly) every female face, twin wisps of whatever masquerading as eyebrows. Slim lines of uniformity. Interesting faces with those endlessly-tweezed, threaded, and plucked fine lines of eyebrows make me a little depressed; there are so many ways we’re made to alter our appearance to suit what’s in or what’s currently being perpetuated as the ideal standards of beauty – eyebrows seemed like the last bastion of individuality which we were all too ready to give up.
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with naturally-thin eyebrows. Pardon me if I sound a little like the Eyebrow Nazi; that’s the furthest thing I want to be. I just object to those wispy-lines that pass off as eyebrows; those little bolts of hair that have been forced to adhere to bizarre and mutable beauty ideals. No more, I say. Today, we stop this madness. Today,we embrace our eyebrows as they are. We Take Back the Eyebrows.
August 24, 2010 § 2 Comments
Quite recently, I’ve begun to become obsessed with the notion of owning a smartphone. I’m not quite sure why; my little dumbphone more than admirably serves my needs, especially when you consider that my feelings for the mobile phone are rather mixed: I appreciate being able to call people whenever I want to, but I greatly dislike being available to others at all times.
But the idea, once planted in my mind, would not dislodge. I looked up reviews of mobile phones online, determined to believe that my choice to NOT choose an iPhone indicated a superiority of character. It is strange how we know it’s ridiculous to think that our choices in consumer products reveals something intrinsic about ourselves, yet we continue to make “choices” that speak to us exactly in this way. So I looked up Android phones because I was convinced this made me different.
The interesting thing about reading phone reviews is the way in which reviewers talk about affordable phones – because the new smartphones are bloody expensive, let’s not forget that – as being somehow “introductory” phones, for the low-end user. It’s not so much a culture of looking down at someone for not having enough money to have a new-fangled smartphone as it is more about looking down on adults who don’t make an effort to upgrade their phones as they move up in life. In this sense, life is presented like a very linear progression, where the cheaper, less-sophisticated phones are “alright for students and those new to smartphones” (and here I paraphrase a random review that stuck in my mind), while people who are serious about their life and/or who have already purchased smartphones before cannot simply revert back into unsophiscation and backwardness. We must march on. Forward. The upgrading of a phone is a sign of progress, and a proper adult would participate in this culture of progress, because not doing so is kind of shameful, like asking for a caramel latte when every other person is ordering a skim or soymilk latte. In fact, it’s almost similar – how can you ask for a caramel latte when you know how many calories it has, how fat it can make you? As a responsible adult who is only going to get better, you have to make the right choice to indicate your commitment to Improving Yourself.
Similarly, how can you simply settle for an ordinary phone when it’s clearly the lazy option? The effort of working on your life includes using the technology that best reflects your continuous need for self-improvement. An ordinary, regular, dumbphone is simply slob-like; it shows a marked disregard for hard work (that is, working hard on acquiring the right symbols to reflect your continuous progress) so that the message to you, dumbphone user, is: Whatever, you slobby person, stop whining about how much smartphones cost, we can’t help you, don’t blame us if you atrophy, etc.
This struck me particularly because a local daily published an article on the increasing rate of cosmetic surgery among men, women, children, and well, EVERYONE. On parents who bring in their children for cosmetic surgery, an “expert” cosmetic surgeon had this to say:
“Parents are more aware of the competition out there. They bring their children for enhancements to put them in same or higher category than their peers.”
Although not stated explicitly, this statement seems to come right out of the school of Doing Better, Wanting More. In an accompanying piece on cosmetic surgery – among children – The Star wrote:
Lim draws a distinction between the child seeking cosmetic surgery “because I hate the way I look” and “because I want to look even better”.
If the child is okay with himself and the way he looks but has the means (or the parents have the means) to make himself look better, then “why not”, he reasons.
If you want to do better – and this means cutting into your face and improving what is already very nice – it’s OKAY, because it signals a very reassuring need for improvement.
In yet ANOTHER accompanying piece on cosmetic surgery (The Star outdid itself, what can I say?), there is a section that bears reprinting at length:
“Like it or not, people judge a book by its cover. Looking good has become a necessity all over the world. It has become a part of life,” says aesthetic physician Dr Alice Prethima.
She says that in the old days, when a person was out of shape and looked bad, people accepted it and merely said “she has aged, she has put on weight”. For a male, they would comment that “he’s prosperous, he ate too much good food”.
But things have changed.
“These days, people think the person is lazy and won’t do anything for himself.”
She believes that just like exercise and supplements, cosmetic surgery and procedures are becoming a way of life as the country becomes more prosperous and people have the means to strive for good health and to look better.
Dr Prethima: ‘More men are coming in to look good and teenagers too are being brought in by their parents.’
“It’s in the subconscious. It is common in any living species that they will be attracted to a better-looking person. The reason is that a better-looking person is supposed to be more fertile and healthier and that will go towards progeny.
“If a person looks good, is fit and takes care of himself, then people would think they can take care of the family, the office or the community. The brain thinks that way. It’s natural,” says Dr Prethima, who has been running an aesthetic clinic for 11 years.
While I do think that our dear Dr. Alice Prethima is a bit harsh, I do also believe that she’s very right and has accurately described our present modern cultural condition. An ugly face or a flabby bum is seen as a very real symbol of one’s presumably inherently degenerative and lazy nature, just as an old phone represents your lack of will. The phone is no big deal, in a sense – people who get annoyed by criticisms of modern capitalism love to shout: “We’ve always wanted new things! The history of mankind is the history of wanting new things!” – but it’s a sign of the times, indeed, when a new face and a new body are also pre-requisites for admirable, sturdy, progressive characters. If you make an effort to fix get a new phone and a new car and a new house and a new face, you’ll make an effort to care for the people in your life, and others will want to marry you.
I’m not sure what slope we’re sliding down here, but the descent seems steep.
*Much thanks to Shakespeare for the title.
August 22, 2010 § 2 Comments
I took some time off the Internet for the last seven days because I needed to find myself.
I needed to find my Walden Pond. The Twitterverse – too much noise. The silent stalking on Facebook – too damn creepy. The articles, blogs, tumblr, online news – too many thoughts; few of them pleasant.
Of course, completely staying away from the internet is not possible. There is The Email. It seems that it has been decreed that we must all use it, especially where work is involved. But other than that, it was a largely successful experiment. It was… restful. In the mornings, instead of drinking a cup of coffee to news and tweets about news, I watched my dogs romp after terrified tree-shrews in the garden. I know that there’s nothing worse than a pretentious bourgeois urbanite writing about “How I stayed away from the internet… and rediscovered my garden!” but that is exactly what I’m doing. I stayed away from the internet, and reader, I rediscovered my garden.
I am not the first to note that the moment you step away from a machine to which you’re connected to for a large part of the day, you tend to feel more at home in your body. I don’t know how to say this without sounding twee, but the humanness of your human body is returned to you when you disengage from the computer for long periods of time. Thus, when people pissed me off in the malls – as they tend to do here in Kuala Lumpur, Valley of Malls – I simply took a good look at their tired, defeated faces and realised that their expressions mirrored my own. The moment – a few seconds, really – of attention that is required of humanity; the few seconds it takes to look at someone else’s face and reconsider your own response or expression; that is the first thing that dissolves into the ether when you’re plugged into a machine. Which is how I felt, for most of the day, doing most of my work and freelance writing on the computer, switching screens to check email and read tweets, switching screens to read articles and Op-Eds, then taking a break, then deriving my entertainment and my mental nourishment from DVDs watched on the computer, books reads as PDF files. I had forgotten what is what like to just be.
As of now, I’m back in the fray, and it’s already making my head spin. I’m not sure why this should be the case, but I suspect a lot of what I need to learn to do in our new age of digital noise and unlimited information is to learn where to draw the line. Learning how and where to draw the line is harder than it seems; it’s precisely why Oprah has become filthy rich preaching it to millions. But perhaps, with a little Faith, I will find My Way. *cue the violins*
*UPDATED to include this thoughtful rumination by Amit Varma on Coates’ blog post, and also on the nature of society and communication and “internal noise”.
August 11, 2010 § Leave a comment
I will like to take this moment to announce a new blog: We Are the Cocoa to Your Puffs.
I write it together with a dear friend and sneaky collaborator, Sharenee. The blog is about, well, Women’s Issues… yeah, I know… big YAWN, right? Women-schwomen, always complaining about every damn thing… what more do women-schwomen want?!?
Well, the short answer: we’re brown, we’re Malaysian, we’re women, and we’re tired. Also, we’re pissed. Hence, the blog.
Please go have a look; my posts are depressingly words-only, but Sharenee draws some amazing comics featuring a stupendous lead character named Miz Moe, who is also a dog. Miz Moe is one of the smartest people dogs I know.
July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
- A shorter version of my original review of Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe appears in the Sunday Star today.
- This article in The Guardian: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five Get 21st-Century Makeover. It’s the silliest thing I’ve heard. Millions of non-white kids in varying hues of cream, brown and black read Enid Blyton millions of miles away from the UK without passing out from the sheer difficulty presented by the text that included phrases like, “lashings of pop” and “jolly japes”. This is how misguided marketing kills reading. Children figure these things out; I did, as almost everyone I know who read the books did. The books were written in a certain milieu. The “slang” reflects that time and place. End of story. And while we’re at it, I’m against changing words that are “racist” and “sexist” and “classist”. Blyton wrote horribly racist, sexist, classist things. Purifying her books by updating her language just makes life easier for the adults – everyone can rest easy knowing that their kids are reading “safe” books. But using this as an opportunity to discuss what their kids read? To explain to children why Blyton had those views, why people all over the world continue to have those views? That’s a little bit more complicated. No one has time to talk about things anymore. So yes, let the kids think that Blyton “couldn’t have meant ‘tinker’ perjoratively.” Let’s purify people of their intentions, real or imagined. Let’s just pretend everything is jolly well fine.
- I’ve criticised VenusZine’s new “direction” under the new publisher and editorial board once before. Unfortunately, I still had one more issue to go before the subscription expired, and so when I received the Summer 2010 issue I stared despondently at Jack White staring despondently down at his guitar, and opened it. It still sucks. This time, they had the ‘VZ’s Ultimate Guide to Summer Reading’ section, which had a little sidebar of their 10 Essential Authors. I produce the list in its entirety:
- Richard Yates
- Alice Hoffman
- Jonathan Safran Foer
- Alice Munro
- Hunter S. Thompson
- Joyce Carol Oates
- John Steinbeck
- Jodi Picoult
- Chuck Klosterman
- Mary Karr
It’s amazing! It’s like the Venus Zine writers have never heard of a non-white author in their life! It’s like they’ve never read a good book in their life! It’s like they’re a bunch of retirees in Florida with a subscription to Poets and Writers and Writer’s Digest.
July 12, 2010 § Leave a comment
I’m not sure why, but I now have a Tumblr blog, Disquiet.
I did it because all the cool people have one. If you call me shallow, I will be deeply offended, but you will be right. Mostly, I started one because the Tumblr interface is breathtakingly easy and pain-free, and clearly geared towards more visual-oriented blogging. I don’t suppose my epic blog posts would fit well in Tumblr, but it is a nice way to share random links, images, songs, videos, and quotes.
Highly addictive, and like Twitter, a further encroachment on my time which could be better put to use writing, reading, writing, helping people, writing, playing with my dogs, writing.