Winter Girlfriend Syndrome


There is a funny commentary by Edith Zimmerman (who is quickly growing on me) about an article that ran in Marie Claire titled “New Trend: Should You Lock In A Winter Boyfriend?”. It’s all about finding that special someone to spend the holidays with – but just the holidays, and be sure not a moment longer! Apparently this is a pretty popular thing. Maura Kelly (the original author) did a search on craigslist that turned up three ads for “winter girlfriends” and four for “winter boyfriends”. It got me started thinking about holiday-specific hookups, and other seasonal- or event-specific hookups too.

People like people who other people like. It’s a pretty basic idea that explains why we use the word “popular” to describe individuals that sometimes, no one really likes all that much. Being associated with other people equates to social status, whether you’re interested in them or actually friends with them or not. I suppose maybe it’s sending implicit messages out to everyone that you’re socially acceptable. Look, but they are smiling and happy in all these group photos! They can’t POSSIBLY be an axe-murderer! It’s the same mentality that hijacks our rational thought when we feel self-conscious being alone in a public space. OMG I’m one of thirty people in this park but everyone’s GOTTA be looking at ME. Everyone is looking at me and I’M ALONE! They must think I don’t have any friends. I’m a loser. I’m a loser sitting on this park bench all by myself having a latte. AHHH okay, okay Femwriter, be cool. Let’s whip out my phone and pretend I’m texting one of my very many friends.

People go out of their way to find dates to formal events – proms, weddings, parties, etc. They start arranging these things far in advance to make sure that they don’t go alone. Why? Because it makes them look bad to be single. People would rather show up with a Robert Pattinson cut-out than face the shame of PUBLIC SINGLEDOM. (Personally, I think the girl in this picture is a complete badass, but I also think that subtracts from my point).

Lots of people are on the hunt/prowl/lifelong search for a “special someone(s)” to spend their time with. Hell, I’d like someone nice to cuddle up to next to the fire, too. This winter I’m one of those people Maura Kelly talks about who schleps around in my pajamas “ordering Malaysian take-out and watching Arrested Development DVDs”. Sure I’m looking for someone special, but if I find them, I’m sure not about to dump them on their ass as soon as the weather gets warm. Not if that wasn’t our agreement, anyway. A lot of this “winter boyfriend/girlfriend” talk seems to rely upon misleading the other person into thinking your relationship is something that it’s not.

Maura Kelly quotes her friend: “He explained the ‘phenomenon’ by saying he liked having someone steady to cook dinners with and watch movies at home with — and he added that it’s well known that a guy will always break things off with the ‘winter girlfriend’ as soon as spring arrives, when his libido kicks in with the onset of sundresses.” Now I don’t see anything wrong with people hooking up for the holidays, for a weekend, for any reason or no reason – and if I did it certainly isn’t my place to judge. But the fact that there is an actual Winter Girlfriend Syndrome seems to imply that there is a bit of one-way duping going on. Cue typical misogynist bullshit about manipulating women in order to “transition them” from one-time hookup to full-fledged Winter Girlfriend. So while this may be just a harmless name for sleigh bells-induced cuddlelust (I just made that up!), is it really only a matter of wanting someone to come home to? Or does it create increased possibilities for people to misread their partner’s expectations of a situation and how far they want a relationship to go?

All that still being said, how can I find a winter boyfriend? 🙂

[Edit: if you re-read this, it’s interesting to point out the heteronormativity in my own post]

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Too close to home: Queerness and female objectification

As a Women’s/Gender Studies major and as, well, myself, I’ve learned a lot about the way women dehumanized through the commodification of our bodies.  But although I’ve learned a lot about the way men objectify women and the way women objectify themselves, I haven’t heard a lot about the way queer women objectify other women. I’ve come to realize that my own internalized sexism and objectification of women is inextricably tangled up in my queer identity. So I decided to blog about it!

It only takes light immersion in the feminist blogosphere before you’ll read about the omnipresent male gaze (popularized as a film concept and generalized here to mean sexual objectification). The basic idea is of a power differential that allows men to objectify women a) systematically, and b) as a means of disempowerment. The lesson I seemed to internalize growing up was that the way to appreciate women is the way I saw men behaving towards them on the macro level. I think that somewhere deep down, the part of me that was developing as queer felt jealous, that men had this unquestioned ownership over women. Why couldn’t I have that? Why couldn’t I “have” women?

Contemplating this is how I started seriously entertaining the thought that I was queer (besides some other early experiences I didn’t know what to think of). I had a friend in high school that I was attracted to…she was a great person, but I’ll admit it was mostly physical. But it caught me completely off guard that I’d be attracted to someone female – as a teenager who had only ever had crushes on boys, dated boys; I was confused and my only model for how to be attracted to women was pig-masculinity. It’s weird because I spent my whole life being told how (presumably men) shouldn’t treat women; but when the roles were reversed, I didn’t make the connection.

I didn’t know whether to take myself seriously, so I didn’t take my actions seriously. I snuck glances, I sat too physically close for comfort, and I got overexcited about the mock homoerotic camera shoots common among adolescent girlfriends. Our small cluster of mutual friends started noticing – two guys who (this made it worse) were in serious competition over her as well. They called me right out on it, made me feel embarrassed and ashamed and dirty. They did it right in front of her too (I guess her feelings didn’t matter -_-). I was beside myself for a long time; I felt singled-out, and humiliated, and guilty. At the time I thought that she deliberately teased me. Maybe it was to test the boundaries of unspoken social permissiveness, or it was flattering attention, or more likely she was completely unaware that more than uncharacteristic awkwardness lay beneath our growing friendship. It doesn’t matter what she did or didn’t do. I acted in a way that objectified her, and was intrusive and insensitive and wrong. I’ve since apologized in a very heartfelt way, which I would have done even if circumstances weren’t so different for us now. It took us a while to reconnect, but now she is one of my closest friends.

Everyone in our society is programmed with messages that are sexist and misogynistic, that lead us to degrade women by objectifying them and their bodies. Our bodies. Women get these messages too. Even in contexts where we feel we can control the way we are viewed, we are still making these choices within a societal framework that is created and maintained by men. And it’s not really about appearances; it’s  about power. Women who are queer have a much longer road to travel. We are simultaneously charged with taking back our own humanity as women, and with engaging with other women without falling back into the familiar standard of sexual objectification.

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Dinner table activism

It started with a conversation about Walmart. My mom witnessed this “poor teenaged girl” (interesting how her presumed vulnerability is used to invoke sympathy) waiting on line for over an hour, trying to return an ipod she had just bought yesterday. She was just waiting while two managers were on the phone with their superior because the system apparently would not accept the item back. We were at the dinner table, and my family was quick to jump on the cynicism bandwagon: “I saw a documentary that Walmart is evil; they probably programmed the system to not take it back, so she’ll give up and they’ll have her money.” The documentary soon launched a conversation about workers’ rights and exploitation – during which my sister wisely left the table, as ever. I think I surprised them all by not jumping right in to take jabs at Corporate America and “The Man”, or whatever they think I rage about. I really wanted to hear their process.

Anyway, I’m not here to talk about Walmart – we could argue in circles all day about the pros vs cons of big business. (For specific information though you can look up Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch vs. Working Families for Wal-Mart). My parents came to their own conclusion that it was “terrible that the company treats its workers so poorly” and that it “crowds out competition so people have no choice but to go there”. Having chosen to voice strong opinions, this makes the comments that follow discouraging to me:

Me: So why don’t you just not shop there?
Her: I know people shouldn’t shop there, but there’s no point if you’re the only one doing it. It doesn’t do anything and you just lose out.
Him: Why would I travel farther to also pay more money for something, especially if nobody else is?

My answer: because it starts with you. And honestly, where better? I don’t care what issue we’re talking about – if you want to take action, you don’t need to wait around for other people to be doing it. Movements would never get started. A little initiative goes a long way.

Occasionally I’m wandering through the hall of one of my campus’s academic buildings and see an empty room with a light on; I’ll walk in and turn it off. It’s not that that one light will make a difference (I mean, yes, a lot of little actions add up) but it’s about setting a standard for myself. It’s about living my values – and who knows, maybe also setting an example for attentive passers-by. There are no inherent limitations on how far ONE action will take you. Whether it’s stopping hateful or violent language, lobbying for animal rights, or decorating your car like this – you’re setting an example for yourself and for others. We tend to idolize people who have historically undermined the status quo to do what they knew was right. We may learn about them in school, or hear about them through stories, or see their name memorialized in a public place. I believe EVERYONE has the potential to be that movement-starter, that justice crusader, that one jenga block that topples the whole tower because enough of the other blocks are supported by it. It comes down to agency – your capacity to act. Your willingness to act.

One person can make a difference. In this case, there is a movement – some people just don’t choose to be a part of it. But don’t think of it like you’re not choosing to act; think of it like you’re choosing not to act. I wish I had jumped in and said, “Mom, there IS a movement. You’re just choosing to not be a part of it.” But they know that; they know because I’m part of it. Whatever it is, maybe the courage (or fed up-ness) that others read into my small actions will inspire them to do the same. A lot of small actions can add up!

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral” – Paulo Freire.

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Compliments and beauty standards

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Back in high school, my friends and I started blogging on a site called I used to fill out this survey at the end of the year about what the year was like for me, and what I hoped/expected for the future. This personal tradition dates back to 2003, and is something I cherish having now as a window into my younger self.

In filling out the survey for 2010, I came across my new year’s resolution from 2009:

[My] resolution for next year that I started about a month ago is to never comment on anyone’s appearance. It’s a common theme in psychology […] that we learn about ourselves through the way others see us; this is a self-concept, and it’s directly related to self-esteem. We rely on others’ actions and reactions to validate our gender display and especially for women, sexual appeal […]. The false beauty ideals that we have collectively internalized harm EVERYONE and do no good except to create an invalid and unreliable standard against which we can judge ourselves[…]. By refusing to reinforce these norms I can try to deprogram my own lookism and help to build a positive self-concept in others that is unrelated to their physical appearance […].

“Nice haircut!” or “You look cute with those boots on today!” sounds harmless enough. But what are we really saying? “Today you are a close match for our beauty norms”. An innocent complement can reinforce appearance norms, and confirms that people need to dress/groom in a way that’s pleasing to others. There is a difference between “Your christmas socks really make me feel cheerful” and “that outfit makes you look good”. The first one is commenting about how they make you feel, not how they look. Think about it: it makes you “look good” according to whom? Who gets to be the judge of what does and doesn’t look good?

Since it is still thoughtful and kind to show someone you are paying attention, I haven’t stopped giving complements – only changed the format. Instead of “Your haircut looks nice,” I’ll say “You got a haircut! Do you like it?” or “Oh this color is much more red, do you feel like it’s more ‘you’?”. This shifts the focus from how others feel about their appearance, to how they feel about their appearance.

What matters about someone’s appearance is whether they like it or not. Not whether you, their classmates, or even significant other(s) like it. In the face of such prevalent and harmful sexist, racist, ableist, sizeist, etc. standards of beauty, and false norms that (especially women) aspire to, we need to be careful what messages we send about appearance. Commenting on others’ appearances is strongly ingrained into our culture, almost unthinkingly so. Friends are supposed to do it. Family feels it’s their job to do it. Strangers think it’s nice to do it. We comment on others’ appearances as a way of socializing each other, of helping each other find a way to ‘fit in’ and sometimes, preparing for the judgment we will face in the outside world. But this is a reactive approach to dismantling lookism and promoting body acceptance. We need a proactive approach.

Make it YOUR New Year’s resolution to stop commenting on people’s appearances like it’s YOU who matters.

[Edit: Apparently I’m not alone, either. Check out Fat Heffalump’s motivational post about the New Year’s Revolution movement!]

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Breaking out of the gender box

This is inspired by a paper I wrote for my Psychology of Gender class

First, in looking for some pictures to accompany this post I stumbled upon a blog called Slap Upside The Head, apparently voted the best GLBT blog in Canada. Their motto is “combating bigotry the gayest way I know how” – and they have their own web comics !!

This is a cute take on the metaphorical “gender box”, but what it symbolizes is very real. Men are taught to live within very rigid gender roles. Consequences for exploring outside these roles are strictly-enforced social, psychological, even physical consequences (bullying would fit all three). The definition of sexism is the belief that one sex is superior to another; in a patriarchal society, that means men are superior to women. While it may be understandable for women to try to “be like men” and climb the social ladder, it’s harder to understand why men would want to “be like women” and climb down the social ladder. Men spend their whole lives being corralled into this gender box.

Think about it: it’s more socially acceptable for women to wear men’s clothes than for men to wear women’s clothes, more understandable for women to want to work outside the home than for men to want to work in the home. It is more acceptable for women than men to try to cross gender lines, because when the real potential for self-actualization is dependent on one’s place in a hierarchy, one will try one’s best to try to ascend in that hierarchy.

So, men are taught that masculinity is tied up in their self-worth. There is a concept called hierarchical dualism that says a) there are two socially-recognized genders (male and female); b) that one has higher status than the other (maleness is valued over femaleness, or masculinity over femininity). If there are only two category options and everything must be placed in a category, what is masculine necessarily can’t be feminine, and what is feminine necessarily can’t be masculine. We also know that heterosexuality is a component of masculinity. By this logic, being gay (or accepting of, identifying with, empathizing with gay people) would imply you are being feminized, and departing from the masculine role.

In order to conform to male gender proscriptions – the social expectations of masculinity – men must reject everything feminine. Remember that what is masculine inherently can’t be feminine, since they are “opposite” things. In order to be masculine, men must embrace heterosexuality and reject other sexualities.

Okay, no blog post is complete without a quote from Glee, so here goes: “How many times do we got to go through this? You being a jock and being in this glee club does not make you versatile, it makes you bisexual.” – Dave Karofsky.

Speaking of which:

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You suck!

I believe that language always has meaning, and it sometimes has implicit or subconscious meaning that we’re not even aware of. Because we live in a culture of patriarchy, I’ve had to teach myself to question the things that I think and say, even in situations where it appears fairly innocuous. Recently an Aha! moment caught me off guard as I hurtled the words at someone: “You suck!”

I had a flashback to a moment of outrage in my high school history class. This one kid was a really popular soccer player, who was a real jerk to everybody but none of the adults seemed to notice – you know the type. He was bragging in class about how he had sexually harrassed a female soccer player on the opposing team that weekend (“sexually harrassed” are my words, not his). He ran past her as she slid and fell during a pass, commenting so only she could hear: “yeah, that’s where you belong – on your knees“.

It was degrading, and I can’t imagine how that other player must have felt. My 14-year-old self wanted to cry because of how unfair it was. He used sexism to deliberately undermine her confidence and imply that she didn’t belong on that field. She belonged on her knees – a submissive position if not a sexually submissive one. “You suck” could so easily have been substituted for what he did say- it’s meant to degrade, imply you are less of a person, worthless even – my mother used to reprimand me for it. It doesn’t mean “suck eggs” (thanks Spongebob), it means “suck penises”. Analogous to Less than. Inferior. Submissive. On your knees.

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the slang version of “you suck” back to 1971 and yes, it did mean fellatio (particularly referring to women) meaning something “contemptible”. By implying that women are degraded by sexual activity, and that oral sex itself is somehow dirty/degrading/contemptible, we are sending a lot of bad messages. A friend that I usually rely on to keep my oversensitivity in check also pointed out the heteronormativity in my argument – degrading women by insinuating they perform fellatio on men. In which case they’re not degraded by the act itself, but by the idea of servicing men. Does the same concept apply to men who perform fellatio on men – that they are degraded through feminization? But Seth Stevenson has a different view. He writes:

“When someone says Bill Gates is a geek, do you picture him as a circus performer biting the head off a live chicken? Of course not. The word’s root meaning has been replaced with a new connotation. Similarly, when I call Paris Hilton a moron, I don’t mean she’s mentally retarded, and when I call bungee jumping lame I don’t mean it’s disabled. What once was offensive is now simply abrasive. Language moves on, and the sucks-haters are living in the past.” (emphasis mine)

What do you think – can words really lose their meaning over time, or does it always depend on the context? I don’t know if it would have meant something different if Tommy had said “you suck” to that girl on the soccer field. But maybe words really can be so removed from our conscious memory that they lose their original meaning. Maybe this is a sign that I need to choose my battles, and relinquish “suck” to its distant past as a word that implies sex-shaming and subservience.

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A ‘bi’ by any other name

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while because it’s something that really bothers me. I was having a conversation about my recent semi-coming-out with someone who identifies as lesbian, in which I confirmed that I was queer. She tried to clarify: “so you like girls and guys”. An interesting choice of words, given one of the reasons I feel most comfortable with the word “queer” is it doesn’t implicitly support a gender binary. But me being queer translated to the most accessible reference in her head: bisexual. For people who haven’t studied gender, I suppose, the closest and most accessible way to understand “queer” is being bisexual – the hotly debated “only Other option” in between gay and straight.

People choose to identify as queer for a lot of reasons. For me, it’s because I’m attracted to individuals who may fall all over the gender spectrum. It means I’m not explaining a part of myself to people using a word that has “sexual” in it, alluding to something much more private than a politicized identity. Something about the word “sexual” just conjures up all those hypersexualized images of Joe Francis-inspired girl-on-girl makeouts in tv-order commercials  (not intended to slut-shame, merely to point out that this is the PREDOMINANT way we see lesbians and bisexuals in the media). It’s because when I want to talk about this one part of myself, I’m not inclined to explain (or justify) my entire history, particular affinities, and future possibilities – I can just leave it at “complex”.

BUT, most people outside of my campus women’s center “bubble” don’t even know what Queer means. How do you explain THAT? Not that it’s necessarily easy to come out to someone, but it’s a different kind of problem when the person hasn’t HEARD OF what you’re trying to come out as. Sure this can be an opportunity to educate them, but when you’re abouttocry you’re not always prepped to do a Queer 101. I can’t tell you how many times I attempted (okay, three times) to tell my friend (who is gay anyway, and a kick-ass queer ally) – just because I didn’t have the vocabulary for it myself yet. I kept wanting to tell him I was bisexual, but each time it just didn’t feel exactly right. Trust me, if I’d known queer was an option, I’d’ve been using it way before college.

The point is, I’ve always viewed sexuality as LINEAR, with gay at one endpoint and straight at another. Everything between is wiggle room, or grey area, or Other. It doesn’t matter what you identify as, people will always match you to the best-fit category in their head, and load you up with all those stereotypes and expectations. If you don’t ALWAYS and ONLY like “boys” and you don’t ALWAYS and ONLY like “girls” (loosely defined), you’re Other.  And the best-fit category for queer-other seems to be bisexual.

By the way, a google search sadly confirmed I didn’t come up with this clever title all by myself. It’s part of an anthology I heard about called “Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out”, edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu. Anyone owe me a belated Hanukkah present? 🙂

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