Sunday, October 29, 2017

The elusive Birkin fit

For the last few weeks, I've had this notion of finding a pair of vintage Levis-or-similar jeans. I'm almost certain I got the idea from the Aritzia website's denim category called "Better Than Vintage." The mere concept struck me as both wasteful (I am 34) and poser-ish (I am also, in some sense, 14). Why not actual vintage, if that's what you're looking for? After all, Instagram is chock-full of French women (such as) in incredibly flattering, by all accounts real-vintage pairs. These women live in France, where vintage US denim has almost got to be harder to find than in Canada, yet they seem to have figured this out.

The plan seemed straightforward enough. I knew, from past trips to vintage clothing stores, where in Toronto the racks full of vintage jeans could be found. And over the course of two recent outings, a brief one to Little Portugal and the Kensington Market, and a more extensive (-feeling) one to Parkdale, I saw them all. OK, not all, but it sure did start to feel that way. I can't say I tried them all on because it was clear from just glancing at them that they would not fit. Not fit, that is, because these were men's jeans. I am a 5'2" woman. While there's no law that says people of my gender and physique can't wear men's jeans, the aesthetic fact is that we cannot do so and have the jeans in question be fitted. The chances are already slim-so-to-speak that a woman my height and general appearance will look like this (or, to put this in slightly more realistic terms, this) under any circumstances, but putting on a pair of large men's jeans seems not to further the cause.

The place with the best selection as well as a useable dressing room was probably In Vintage We Trust, in Parkdale. Even there, they were all too big, except for I think one pair that was too small in the way I remember jeans often being too small in dressing rooms of my youth, before stretch denim became ubiquitous. That is, too small in the waist, hips, etc., but sort of cartoonishly enormous through the legs. A fit that's uncomfortable and unflattering at the same time, and not in the modern-silhouette sense. No matter which pair, what size and shape the circa-1998 label promised, it looked like if Elaine Benes had put on Jerry's jeans.

The fantasy of perfectly-fitting vintage jeans is a complicated one. On some level, it's like all clothing fantasies - about having a flawless-by-society's-harsh-standards physique and looking amazing, especially from certain angles. But it's also a branch of the broader effortlessness dream. The idea is half that you're someone who had all the time in the world to try on evvvvery last pair until you found the one made for your body (that is, a leisure fantasy), half that you just happened upon these ones that fit you great because you're you and you're the sort of person who falls ass-backwards - literally, in this case - into good luck. It goes beyond high-end athleisure, which, while also taking its appeal in part from exclusivity, is nevertheless accessible to everyone under a certain dress size and with $90 to spend on leggings. Finding form-fitting non-stretch pants, with no consistent sizing, is a challenge of another order. Thus the carefree, 'They're vintage!' one is meant to utter to one's Instagram influenced fan base. Easy-breezy.

The unseen effort, I suspect - for there's always some - is that these jeans have been altered. Given that the pseudo-Jane Birkins of Instagram are if anything slimmer than I am, that these jeans fit me wrong in the way that they did suggests to me that these other women are getting their jeans altered. Altered, that is, in width. Not hemmed - nothing so short-person and pedestrian. No, I mean taken in, in the legs especially, so as to fit like the new, stretch-having jeans, while somehow being all-cotton. I have now Googled it and it's apparently a thing. It's not that all the effortless-chic Parisiennes have spent hours in the equivalent of Parkdale (in the Marais, as I wistfully recall) combing through used menswear. Who has the time?

But I think it was the leisure aspect that appealed to me about this quest. The dream wasn't so much the jeans themselves as the afternoon or evening I'd have, trying on as many as I felt like, and stopping for a coffee along the way. Neither my weekdays nor weekends have been conducive to that lately. Imagine having the time to sort through a pile of jeans that made their way to a Toronto vintage shop and find ones that just happened to fit me right!

Then when, yesterday, I declared that I was free to spend Saturday afternoon just trying on all the jeans, all of them if I so chose, I was promptly reminded that trying on a heap of ill-fitting pants is not actually a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Reminded, too, that a jeans quest sparked by a practical-ish need - the fact that my light-denim pair was falling apart and becoming generally unwearable - would not be answered by purchasing a pair of pre-owned pants of any kind. So I full on gave up, de-romanticized the quest for jeans, and spent approximately two minutes trying on and purchasing these, which will do the trick.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My very urgent not at all late Mayim Bialik op-ed take

A million years ago, I read (and reviewed) that "Israel Lobby" book. The main thing I remember about the book itself was a certain rhetorical device: the authors would preempt whichever point about a sinister Jewish cabal controlling everything with a finely-worded disclaimer about how of course they are not anti-Semites and of course they do not think a sinister Jewish cabal controls everything. It was this odd back-and-forth - the thing they were arguing, and the periodic insistance that anyone who noticed what they were arguing had (willfully?) misunderstood.

Disclaimers are funny like that. If everyone thinks you wrote X, but X is something you don't think, not even a little bit, it's always a good idea to stop and think why that mistaken belief about your work is out there. Sometimes there will be a reason - a bad headline, say - but you want to be sure. You want to be sure you're not arguing X. I went through something like this when writing my book. I anticipated certain criticisms. But rather than disclaimerizing and saying that even if you think my book is about X, oh no, I insist, it's not, take my word for it, I went and looked at the texts that are deeply X and examined where I did and did not agree with those stances. Where you think something controversial, you need to own it. Where you've been unfairly accused of thinking something you don't, you should at the very least know for yourself why the accusation is unfair.

This approach is more easily accomplished in a book than an op-ed. Maybe that was the issue with actress-scientist Mayim Bialik's recent NYT piece. But also, maybe not? Because bad takes are clickbait, or maybe for a more noble reason I'm not thinking of at the moment, the NYT Opinion pages had her do a video continuation of the op-ed as well, where she could defend herself from her critics. I watched a lot of it. I watched her go through the ritual of explaining that of course she doesn't victim-blame (which she does; that's central to the op-ed!), because... well, what was her reason, exactly? Because it's her, and she's a good feminist, and how could anyone possibly think something like this of her? (And I caught the very beginning, where her editor notes how well the piece is doing traffic-wise. You don't say.)

Well, the reason people criticized her piece was because she wrote it. I mean, I have no preexisting beef with Mayim Bialik. If anything, for various personal reasons (see comments to the post below) I'd have been biased to agree with her. But... the piece itself! Why is it remotely relevant to Bialik's history or lack thereof with respect to the "casting couch" (on that term, see Jessica M. Goldstein's excellent take) that she was not allowed manicures as a child? Why the cutesy ending about how plain-looking women don't need to look for love on casting couches, as though that's remotely what the expression "casting couch" has ever referred to? Why the reference to choosing not to flirt, as though the women men think are flirting with them actually are in all/most cases? Why the treeeemendous blind spot of, dressing modestly within a religious context has a long history of not doing a darn thing to prevent sexual abuse or assault?

I get the minuteness of Bialikgate. Minute compared with what's happening in Somalia, minute compared with the story now circulating of Trump joking about how Pence wants to murder gay people, and minute within the broader Weinstein-and-abuse story. (Bialik's story is about having not been a victim; thus in a sense the press it's gotten, since anything other than #MeToo was, from a cynical journalistic perspective, a fresh take.) The fate of the world does not hinge on whether Mayim Bialik gets, I mean really and truly gets, where her op-ed went wrong. And it's not as if she's abusing anyone. Anger should be directed at abusers, at the culture, not at individual self-identified feminist women who fail to meet flawless Awareness standards. Why am I still thinking about it even at all?

Partly it's that the piece came so close to being useful. It might have been a reflection on the ambiguities of an industry where, under the best of circumstances, people - women especially - are getting chosen for work in a large part based on their looks. It might have been a piece that reflected on how an industry (or society) that pseudo-values women only when young and gorgeous winds up screwing over all women. It might even have been an unpopular-opinion-ish point about how lived experience is different for women deemed sexy and those deemed less so - about how plain-looking or dressed-down women can absolutely still get assaulted, abused, etc., but may not be the recipients of a certain kind of ambiguous male attention. It might have been nuanced. It might have stayed put at Bialik's own highly specific experiences, without the additional take-tastic level of and you, too, could avoid sexual assault, if only you wore longer skirts, hussy. But who would have clicked on that?

So I guess this interests me as a media story. But also a rhetoric one. The it's me disclaimer, the one where the argument that the author is not actually saying whatever it is they're saying isn't so much an argument as a demand not to besmirch their good name, is really something else. I wonder if it's a rhetorical devise only really possible if you're someone generally protected from criticism. A star, in one area or another. Someone without the protection from criticism that stardom allows may well want to pull a but it's me, but be, at one stage or another, prevented from doing so.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Yes, I guess, all women

A lot of the Weinstein coverage has taken a certain approach: all women have experienced this. Not from Weinstein, specifically - though granted his alleged harassment and assault ran the gamut - but from the Weinsteins in our lives. Every woman, goes the (generally woman-authored) thinking, has dealt with this. Accompanying this is the notion - which has its own issues - that every woman has this group of other women she shares stories about who to avoid, which is unfortunately not the case.

I don't know what to make of the it-happens-to-us-all interpretation. As in, I really don't. I keep swinging back and forth between doubting - doubting, that is, that this has happened to all women, but also and more to the point, that you even need to make the case of universality to explain how awful this story is... and thinking that yes, that does actually sound about right, all women probably have encountered this in one form or another.

Put another way: I don't think it helps, from a feminist perspective, to present the universal female experience as being one of constant unsolicited male attention. I know women for whom something like this is true, others for whom, nope, not really. I suppose I fall somewhere in between - as do, I suspect, most women.

In one sense, I am a woman who has - luckily - never dealt with anything quite like this. I have never been asked for sexual favors in exchange for professional advancement. The only workplace sexual (or just body-related, hard to explain succinctly) harassment I've ever experienced was from a (powerful) straight woman.

How much of my spared-ness from that universal can be attributed to the workplaces I've landed in (straight men were underrepresented in my early-mid 20s work environments), and how much to the fact that I'm... within normal limits, but not someone met by a horde of suitors upon leaving the house, not someone who could have one of those jobs where looks especially matter? I have no idea.

But when I think less strictly about the Weinstein narrative - and when I leave the moment, that is, being 34 and very wrapped up in work stuff that keeps me living very much in the present... sure. There were things with elements of this. There was a librarian where I was doing research who wouldn't leave me alone until my now-husband actually physically showed up at this library. I can piece together a Weinstein-ish picture from certain boss behavior (not all bosses, but not none, alas), a certain college classmate situation (which I sure hope that college's administration would be better about dealing with today but who knows), and the overall experience of having existed as a young woman. Not a young and beautiful actress, but a young woman, which is, for what I'm going to guess is the vast majority of young women, enough. (Other incidents I'm thinking of, now that I think of it, have been in the last year or so. Young-ish will do.)

There was also, though, a time I still think about more than I should, when some (male) profs suggested - to me as well as to another woman grad student - that we promote the department by putting a third female grad student - a strikingly beautiful one, not present - on our brochures. And you know what? I'm going to classify that in the same pile.

What "lucky" is in this context is its own question. It's both easy and appropriate to focus on the recipients of Weinstein and similar's unwanted advances. These are not stories of glamor and sex appeal (and - in cases like Paltrow, Jolie, extreme beauty, celebrity relatives, the hovering presence of Brad friggin' Pitt) helping anyone, but quite the contrary - they're stories of exploitation and abuse. But it is worth also keeping in mind all the women who - because they aren't beautiful 22-year-olds - are not part of the story, as it were, to begin with.

While writing this post, I came across Marie Le Conte's excellent post on just that angle:

Something I hadn’t seen discussed in light of recent events is how they treat the women they don’t seek to abuse. In so many cases, men who sexually harass women struggle to register the existence of those other women, the useless ones. .... There is absolutely no doubt that one of the scenarios here is far worse than the other, but escaping from the threat of being sexually assaulted doesn’t even mean that women will get to be treated as human beings.
Yes. Exactly.

The story of gorgeous young women being lunged at and worse is - in crude media terms - easy to illustrate. The story of ordinary-looking women in that same workplace situation, getting harassed not by a powerful movie exec who wants to show he can 'get' the world's most beautiful women, but by a boss in some less-glamorous situation exerting his power over the nearest young and vulnerable woman, a notch or ten less so. And that of the women not lunged at, but treated as invisible, this... I mean, from a journalistic perspective, how would you even illustrate that?

But the story is all of this. Any system that values extreme youth and physical attractiveness winds up being awful, in different ways, for all women. For the women (fleetingly) treated as if they matter (except not really; it's a ruse - see Jia Tolentino on that angle), there are doubts about whether anyone ever did, ever will, take you seriously professionally. For the women who had been in that situation, give or take, but have aged out of it, there's the nagging question of whether you're too old, not just for Under Age Whatever achievement lists, but for achievement, period, if your accomplishments aren't those of a woman young enough to count. (Thought processes such as, 'Why write a novel if it would, realistically, only ever be finished, let alone published, at age whatever?') And for the women never or less-frequently in that situation, at any age, it's a cap on professional options extending well beyond the tolerable unfairness that not all of us have the option of being Glossier brand ambassadors.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ugh-ing in unison

Highly recommend Michael Sacasas - via Navneet Alang - on "affect overload," or the way social media drifts from ubiquitous emotional displays regarding one crisis to... the same thing, but re: the next:

"Even apart from crisis, controversies, and tragedies, however, the effect is consistent: the focus is inexorably on the fleeting present. The past has no hold, the future does not come into play. Our time is now, our place is everywhere."

Sacasas argues - and I think he's right! - that this phenomenon makes it very difficult to actually stop and think about... well, anything. I'm half asleep but have been wanting to yes-and this since reading it earlier today:

The thing on Twitter, maybe a bit on Facebook too, where everyone is upset about the same thing, all at once, and you feel like you're interrupting a meeting for those distressed about the topic of the moment if you opine about anything else... it's real. It's a thing. It's the thing where someone without any apparent connection to a story of the moment announces they're tired, and the assumption - the default assumption! - will be that this is a tired from the strain of the upsetting story in the news that day, and not any other sort of tired. Not the literal tired of having not slept, nor even the personal-and-political tired of having dealt with discrimination on a personal level. (Not that the not-having-slept tired can't have personal-as-political roots of its own...) No, the tired of terrible things having happened, that you have read about. The tired of something having happened to a member or members of a demographic you're not necessarily a part of, but that you definitely consider yourself an ally of. And it's not just "tired" - it's any out-of-context ugh. The assumption is that you are plugged into exactly what everyone's talking about now, even if you're in no way employed as a commentator, and that this is an ugh at what everyone else is ugh-ing about.

The impact, then, isn't just to reduce the thoughtfulness with which it's possible to analyze current events. Nor is it just to make any thoughts not about the news seem insensitive. It's this odd performance-yet-shaping of emotion. Think of your moods in a given day. When were you happy? Sad? Angry? I suspect that even for the very online, these don't especially track with news stories. Not never - for reasons I myself don't entirely understand, I find the Weinstein story incredibly sad and angering, even by awful-story-in-the-news standards - but... not as much as it would seem from social media? Because people have offline lives, as well as all sorts of idiosyncratic things going on in their online lives, inasmuch as those can be divided at this point, etc., etc., apologies but I am tired in the literal sense. 

The overshare era is done, replaced with intense displays of emotion about what would have to be a limited part of what's impacting anyone's emotional life. Yes, this relates - in ways I'm not quite awake enough for - to Jia Tolentino's argument about the personal essay feeling irrelevant unless anchored in an issue, unless - in a sense - an op-ed. Which is a win for privacy, I guess? But seems as it if would have some downsides as well.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Red Sweater(s)

It was a big-news week. So many huge, important stories tweeted out as must-reads, which I would notice here and there in between teaching, and which I am catching up on, one by one.

I do not have the bandwidth, though, for follow-through on any of the stories of the moment. What I will tell you about instead is sweater-shopping.

It all started - as these things not infrequently do - with a photo of Emily Weiss. More specifically: of the Into The Gloss / Glossier founder in a red sweater that was just so great. Céline, evidently, and discounted to a price at the high end of what I'd consider plausible for a sweater to cost full-price, and at any rate, that was over a year ago, so for this whole host of reasons, that specific sweater wasn't going to happen. But something like it, why not? I loved the idea of a bright red sweater - an everyday item not in a fade-into-the-background navy, gray, or black, like my other sweaters. A pop of confident, grown-woman color.

If I speak of a quest, it sounds as if I was devoting every moment from whenever I saw that photo until the moment of locating a sweater along those lines in an attempt at finding one. That would not be an accurate way of describing the last year or so, to put it mildly. But it would be fair to say The Sweater was always on some level in the back of my mind. It inspired the purchase of a rayon, long-sleeve, bright-red shirt from Uniqlo in New York. But upon return to Toronto, the moment had come. I was going to find this sweater.

Uniqlo did not come through in that regard. It had numerous variations, each not quite right: v-neck rather than crewneck, short-sleeve rather than long, dark crimson rather than the perfect bright red. They clearly have the right fabric, but use it only for this one $150 turtleneck dress, which is definitely not the thing I was looking for.

I don't know what came over me, as this is not my normal way of shopping, but I decided to look on eBay. Sure enough, there it was. The great advantage to being ancient is that I can tell, from a photo, if something is likely to fit me, and indeed, this did. Even with all manner of I-live-in-Canada fees, it was something like $80 (CAD) - not cheap but not outrageous. I was thrilled.

I became a notch less thrilled about it when the Everlane pop-up appeared in Nordstrom, and... there it was. The Sweater. In the right color, at least. Too expensive ($140ish), but still. I had to know. Did The Sweater exist, even if I wasn't about to buy it? The eBay one is a true, bright red, but more like cherry-red, a bit darker than the neon, almost orange red (think Nars Heat Wave) I had been imagining. (On Pinterest they look identical, which tells you something about the level of color difference we're talking about here.) Had I foolishly bought a sweater online, in some confusing and effectively non-returnable way, only to see The Sweater in person?

Was it foolish, though, given that I would not spend that much on a sweater, even if it were The Sweater?

I am pleased to report that the sweater I already bought is the superior entity, at least for my subjective purposes. The Everlane one fit me all wrong (too long and generally odd-fitting), and the material was flimsier. As for the color itself, while it's for sure the color of The Sweater, I can now see that the shade is - like all permutations of orange - not great with my coloring, whereas the slightly darker red seems to work.

If there's a moral to this story, it could well be that it's sometimes worth it to look for clothing in places other than Dundas and Yonge, with all due respect to that most relied-upon of intersections.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Hi from Canada

At the curious intersection of American gun culture and progressive Twitter... motifs?, the following narrative has emerged:

The problem isn't guns, or not mostly/most urgently guns, someone will say, but rather something amorphous in society. Toxic, aggrieved masculinity, say, or "white male entitlement." White men. Or just: men. (The first link brings up a thread where that very question is debated.) This is about men being the worst. And also, maybe, whiteness, if not in the act itself, which sure seems to correlate with maleness, then with which killers get which treatment in the press, from law enforcement. The problem isn't guns but societal unfairness.

Make a pronouncement along these lines, and you will get nods of agreement from some, trolling from others, but you know what you probably won't get? You probably won't get the gun nuts I got in my mentions (and in my employer's inbox...) for weeks after writing this.* Those taking this stance are people whose politics on this I share, I guess, kind of? But something seems off about the priorities, or maybe just the pragmatism?

Anyway, here's how I see it: racism, sexism, structural injustice, all of this is real. It's all important. It's important, too, that every time one of these idiots goes and shoots some unfathomable number of people, whichever motivation gets attributed (attribution of motive being its own web of problematicness), lo and behold he - virtually always he - has a history of domestic violence against one or more women. It all matters. It should all be addressed. It's not zero-sum, not at all.

But all these societal problems are intractable relative to having fewer guns. When addressing the specific and I think rather important issue of how to make it so people aren't constantly getting killed or seriously injured as a side effect of human awfulness, sure it's a good idea to look at the "human awfulness" angle, but also: guns.

Put another way. I want to live in a world without racism, sexism, domestic violence, or self-destructive urges, without white male entitlement. But I can picture a world without ready access to guns.

Guns are physical objects. Countries with different laws don't have this issue. It's not that there aren't obstacles - legal** and cultural - to shifting away from a gun culture. But consider those obstacles relative to abolishing racism and sexism. Especially to abolishing unconscious racism and sexism. Yes, a world with a bit less general awfulness would also have less gun violence, less violence of all kinds. But it should not be possible to kill, as guns allow, on a whim.

*A strange thing about having written that article is, even nearly two years later, there are these rounds of, a mass shooting happens, the piece again starts circulating (without my sharing it), and I again get the furious tweets, emails, etc. The moment I see something in my inbox with the subject heading, "You live in Canada," it's like, yep, that time again.

**Yes, I am aware of the Second Amendment. Whether the answer here is new interpretations of it or a repeal, others would know better than I would. I'm certain the issue is guns, but am not the policy strategist who's going to figure out how to get rid of them.