What We Mean When We Talk About “Flattering” Clothes

Next to “old” (as in, “that style makes you look old,” or “that style ages you,” the next biggest put-down in fashion is the term “unflattering.”

“Unflattering” can mean:

Too big or baggy, meaning “we can’t see the shape of your body.”

Too small or tight – meaning “we see parts of your body we’d rather not see.”

Out of proportion with the wearer’s stature, meaning “we think you look short” or “wide” or “fat” (never “you look tall” or “you look slim”).

Out of proportion with the wearer’s secondary sex characteristics, meaning “we can’t make out your breasts, butt, hips” etc. (This includes “the male gaze.”)

Shaped or cut so that the desired body form is obscured, meaning “we want to see a normal body,” (whatever that is) or “we want to see you the way we usually see you.”

Don’t surprise us or challenge us, whatever you do.

“Flattering,” then, comes down to how others see us. After all, when someone flatters you for your brains, looks, accomplishments, character or any other trait, they’re really talking about their reaction to you.

You can’t flatter yourself.

Of course, you can wear and enjoy things that you think look good. You might wear those garments hoping to get compliments – fishing for flattery – or you might wear them because they make you feel happy, powerful, smart, kind, capable, or any other way that you want to feel. Or maybe you don’t want to feel anything in particular – you just want to put on comfortable clothes and get on with your day.

Which all leads me to this look:

Flattering on top, unflattering on bottom.

This top is the Brasov Wrap Top from Itch to Stitch. The pants are the “Discover Something Novel” pants from The Cutting Line. One guess which is the “flattering” and which the “unflattering” garment?

This top is designed to be flattering – a wrap style in stretchy knit that sits close to the body. It’s designed to make breasts and waist and hips stand out – textbook “flattering.”

Side view – breasts on display, but are legs in there somewhere?

The pants are the opposite – they sit away from the body, obscuring legs, hips and butt. Their width actually makes it hard to imagine the body parts inside. Surely I have legs and a butt, but where?

Back view… still not sure where my butt is, but my waist is hard to miss.

How dare I wear something “unflattering!” Don’t I realize that my body should be on view as much as possible for other people to look at and enjoy (as long as it’s conventionally “attractive” that is)!

Today I wore these pants to go shopping. I picked up some buttons and other items at a vintage store. I bought a sweater at a boutique. I stopped in an art supply store. I got groceries. And in all four places, I got compliments on these pants. WHAT? Aren’t they “unflattering?” How can someone lay some flattery on me then?

Because these pants are interesting, that’s why.

What’s more, I wear them for me and for no one else, and there’s magic to that.

Most people walk around in a state of total conformity – normcore jeans for miles, maybe some leggings or yoga pants at a stretch (and almost always in black) – and they are all ignored. Seen it a million times, dah-ling – and will see it a million more. But wear something different, and people react. Maybe the garment elicits an emotional reaction – makes someone smile, perchance, or makes someone frown – or maybe it makes someone think. Maybe these pants make Gen Xers like me nostalgic for the 80s. Or maybe someone thinks a Gen Xer like me is stuck in the past. Who knows? Who cares?

Anyway, it’s better than plain old flattery any day.

And if you really want someone to react, when they compliment you on your traditionally unflattering garment, say “thank you, I made them myself” and watch their eyes bug out of their heads. And enjoy the satisfaction of that!

Four Years On

I voted yesterday for Joe Biden. And as I stood in line to vote (we waited about an hour as a socially-distanced line snaked around the block) I took stock in all I have done during this past four years to unclench the dread in my stomach brought on by Trump’s election.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg mask for Election Day

Those of you not in the US may not understand or care much about what’s happening in the US, but for those of us in the US who oppose Trump, it’s all we’ve been able to think about for four years.

I used to be a journalist and was truly objective in my personal political views. I belonged to no political party, because I didn’t like either of the two choices I got. I found things to like in both parties, and things not to like. I trained myself to see both points of view. When voting, sometimes I chose Republicans and sometimes Democrats.

In 2016 I voted for Hillary Clinton for president. I was not an enthusiastic supporter, but there was no way I would vote for Trump. I posted on Facebook “Go Hillary!” It was the start of an awakening for me.

I arose after a sleepless night the day after the 2016 election in deep mourning over Trump’s victory. A mentor told me I’d better be prepared to fight like hell for what I believed in, for I’d better kiss it goodbye.

But what did I believe in? This crisis made it clear. I believe:

  • A woman’s body is her own.
  • Black lives matter
  • Love is love.
  • Climate change is real, and humans are responsible.
  • Science is real.
  • God is not real.
  • Greed is killing us.
  • Clean air and water are basic human rights.
  • Education is a basic human right.
  • A living wage is a basic human right.
  • Health care is a basic human right.
  • I could go on and on

In some ways, I have been radicalized by Trump’s election. I am responding to an existential threat. I don’t see how anyone can sit on the sidelines.

I sewed piles of pink “Pussy Hats” and participated in my first Women’s March that January.

Women’s March in New York City, January 2017, with Grand Central Terminal in the background

And I have been to one every year since. A sign I got from Planned Parenthood at a rally lives in my car trunk – I take it out whenever I need something to hold.

Women’s March January 2020

I opened my wallet to support organizations that were fighting against the Trump administration’s crimes against the environment, health care, education, immigrants, voting rights, and many more.

I wrote letters. I attended lectures. I read books. I made phone calls to strangers. I spoke out, early and often, to express my point of view.

Sierra Club’s letter-writing campaign

What good did it all do? Did my work convince anyone, move the needle one iota? Or did it just make me feel good? Was I naive to think that an army of women in pink hats was going to change anything?

Yes I was. I now see the depths my country can sink to. How so many people can disregard rampant corruption and incompetence, lying, cruelty, bigotry, misogyny, hatred, and embrace fantastical thinking, violence, and destruction, all because of what? A few more dollars in your pocket? A feeling of “white power?” The right to carry a gun anyplace? A stop to abortion? A gleeful feeling from making progressive thinkers cry?

And what about the Democrats? What a bunch of idiots! I really DO NOT like either party. They get a big share of the blame for taking votes for granted and for nominating some bland old career politican to fight Trump.

The next few days are going to be rough for me as the votes are counted and as challenges wind up in court. I have no sense of optimism. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses in the end, this is my country – a place where millions and millions of people think he’s the best.

Martin Luther King said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It is hard to see that arc right now.

But, texting with a friend this morning, I was reminded that there will come a day when Trump is no longer President. Whether that’s in January 2021, January 2025, or some day in between, this too shall pass. And even if Biden wins, the work is not over – we will need to continue to fight, weary as we are.

For self-care I sewed some quilts this spring, as Covid-19 killed Americans even as Trump ignored it:

Persist!

We must keep going – must persist – no matter what happens.

Pre-election Activism

I was on vacation last week, so in addition to sewing, painting, and other projects, I dedicated several hours to activism. There’s still time to get involved in efforts to defeat Trump and his Republican enablers, rally our side, and otherwise ensure a fair election, before the US election November 3.

Fighting voter suppression in Georgia. The Southern Poverty Law Center runs a phone tree every Thursday afternoon, where volunteers call Georgia registered voters to help them get absentee ballots for the election if they want them. Many people are worried about contracting Covid-19 at their polling places, especially if there are long lines. Georgia in particular showed horrible discriminatory election practices during the 2018 midterms and 2020 primary – voting systems broke down, people waited in line for hours, voting wards were consolidated and confused (especially in poor and nonwhite areas) and some voters found out after all this struggle that their names had been purged from the rolls.

I’ve made calls for three weeks for the SPLC, which is a group dedicated to fighting racism and teaching tolerance in the Deep South. The calls go to people age 50 and up – people who are most at risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19. Most of the time, the calls go to voicemail, and so I leave a message with the Web address of the absentee-ballot request system for Georgia. Once in a while, someone answers the phone, and I have had a few nice conversations with Georgians. Several people I spoke with already had their absentee ballots and were ready to use them. One man I spoke with said he would vote in person.

“I always believe in showing up at the polls and making my mark,” he said. Good for you!

Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I attended a conference call by the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a nonprofit group, that discussed the legacy of the Supreme Court justice and provided ideas for activism. One key takeaway was to have a plan for voting well in advance of the election. My husband and I decided to get up at 5:30 a.m. on Election Day, walk to our polling place (at a nearby fire station) and wait in line for as long as it takes.

Don’t wait until Election Day to figure out how you will cast your ballot.

Make a plan now.

The women at the BWHI call also reminded people of threats to women’s healthcare with yet another arch-conservative justice on the court. People think a lot about abortion rights, of course, and it’s poor women who are hurt when clinics close. Rich women can always travel – even to a foreign country if necessary – to get an abortion. Poor women don’t have that luxury. Also at stake is the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, that tried to provide health care options for people who aren’t covered by employers or other government programs. And efforts to stamp our racism and sexism in the health care system also are at stake.

For the birds with the Sierra Club. A letter-writing campaign sponsored by the environmental group the Sierra Club aims to connect with voters through a personal touch. The letter-writing campaign targets voters in certain battleground states (that is, states that Biden needs to win to defeat Trump).

I chose to send my letters to voters in Florida. The Sierra Club provides names and addresses, and a form letter with space for a personal message. I’ve been doing a lot of backyard bird-watching this year (56 species and counting) and have been enjoying “Vesper Flights” by Helen Macdonald, so I decided to add a few sentences about projecting Florida’s beautiful bird habitats.

Letters for the Sierra Club (blacked out names and addresses)

Each week, I pledged to write 25 letters. There’s still time – they get mailed out in October.

I would love to get involved with other activism. I can’t do any specific fund-raising or campaigning for a candidate, but I can for a cause such as the environment and voter rights. Please drop me a line with any ideas. Thanks!

Maiming Myself

I intentionally maimed myself last week. At least, that’s what you’d think based on my decision to cut my hair short and go gray.

Yes, my hair is short. Yes, it’s getting gray. No makeup either! So sorry that an aging woman has invaded your view in her natural state.

Some feedback on my new look and my snarky internal monologue in response:

Them: “What did you do that for?” Me: “Just to mess with you.”

Them: “I didn’t recognize you.” Me: “I am an international woman of mystery.”

Them: “You look older.” Me: “This is what 50 looks like.”

Them: “You look younger.” Me: “Stop lying.”

Them: “You look like a totally different person.” Me: “Still just me. Sorry to disappoint.”

Them: “You’re so brave.” Me: “This is some serious Joan of Arc action up in here.”

Joan of Arc – historic patron saint of short-haired women who take no crap from anyone.

Them: “You’ll need a strong lip now.” Me: “Is GET LOST enough lip for ya?”

Them: “It’s…. cute…” Me: “You’re… full… of… it…”

Them: “Wow.” Me: “Yup.”

Them: “It’s good you have something on your forehead.” Me: “I’m glad I covered up enough of my head for you.”

Them: “It’s a mature look.” Me: “It’s Judi Dench drag.”

Judi Dench, today’s saint of short-haired women who don’t give a care.

Them: “You have the bone structure for it.” Me: “Yes. I have bones in my face.”

Them: “Are you going to keep this or let it grow?” Me: “I think I’ll go shorter next time.”

Them: “You are just as pretty.” Me: “Just wait until I get my skull tattoos.”

Them: “Are you all right?” Me: “Short haircuts aren’t just for cancer survivors and brain tumor sufferers anymore!”

Them: “You’ll have to get trims more often now.” Me: “YAY!”

Them: “You’re like a pixie now.” Me (clapping my hands): “I DO believe in fairies!”

Fairy, pixie – tomato, to-mah-to.

Them: “Men hate short hair on women.” Me: “My dream of repelling men finally comes to fruition!”

I suppose I could unpack all this, but really I can sum up my decision in two words – and you can quote me on this – “Screw it.”

Many people, in the United States anyway, have come to believe that women and men are equals. Most people would deny they are sexist. Women are no longer widely scoffed at for wearing pants, or playing sports, or having “manly” jobs, or many other things once viewed solely in the domain of men.

But get a short haircut? The sexism flag flies free!

To be fair, many people said they liked it. So that’s nice. But here’s the thing – I don’t care if you like it or not. I didn’t get this haircut for you. I got it for me.

From the moment females are born, they are conditioned to believe that their looks are the most important thing – more important than intelligence, character, personality, drive, empathy – anything. Pretty is paramount. Don’t believe me? Watch how people behave around little girls – always commenting on their hair, bodies, dresses, grace – anything that can be seen and judged will be seen and judged. People will try to “fix” what they think is lacking. And that “fixing” never goes away. Ever. The beauty and fashion industries churn it up nonstop.

An interesting thing happens after 40, though. The conversation subtly starts to shift from “looking your best” to “not looking old.” Because old is the worst. Old is unforgivable. Old is a reminder of death. Look old? Jump into your coffin, already. I’ll see you there!

Taking a Break, Then Taking Action

I took a break from all social media in June. I was so heartsick over everything – pervasive racism and discrimination, police brutality, the continuing death toll from Covid-19, the never-ending catastrophe of the Trump administration. It was too much to take. How could I spend my time sewing, gardening, and otherwise enjoying my life in the face of so much, pain, suffering and death?

I used the time instead to attend some rallies, read and attend lectures and talks about the issues, reckon with my own experiences with racism – times I have both done and said things I should not have, and have been silent when others did – reach out to friends and neighbors who are hurting, and planning sustainable actions for the future.

If you’re interested in these issues, here are a few steps you might want to take along with me.

  1. State clearly and often that Black Lives Matter. Don’t give me that “all lives matter” nonsense. If you don’t understand what Black Lives Matter means, guess what? It’s easy to learn. Start here.
  2. Call out people on their racism. I am tired of just ignoring crap I hear from other white people – those microaggressions, those little snide comments and “I’m not prejudiced, but…” statements. Guess what? You are prejudiced. And I am not taking it anymore.
  3. Learn about the long, long history of racism. As a starting point, I especially recommend “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times Sunday Magazine, as a primer to the history of slavery and how racism has poisoned all aspects of American life.
  4. Learn about conscious bias. All people have biases – it’s part of being human. But unconscious bias is what happens when we make snap judgments about people based on preconceived notions or prejudices. Unconscious bias is the quiet, nasty sibling of outright loudmouth bigotry. It affects how people judge one another based on their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability, nationality, religion or other factor. A useful tool is to “press the pause button” when I feel unconscious bias creeping in. Think – am I feeling this way because the other person is X and I am Y? Recognizing bias is the first key to stamping it out.
  5. Open your wallet. Instead of spending money to enjoy my white privileged life, I have been spending money to help others. There are many worthy causes. Here are a few national organizations I have supported – some longtime supporter, some new supporter: The NAACP, The Southern Poverty Law Center, The United Negro College Fund and The Black Women’s Health Imperative. Even better, support your local organizations. We love LEAP – a local educational program.
  6. Talk about it. Many white people – myself included – feel that they can’t talk about racism. They may think – “I don’t know what to say.” Or “If I say something it may come out wrong.” Or some other excuse. I encourage you to reckon with what the real reason is. For me, it was shame. I am ashamed that I have failed to see and fight racism in my daily life. I am ashamed of things I did in the past that seemed OK but now I know were not. Whatever your reason is, lean into it. Talk to your friends and family. Get them to understand your point of view, and get them to understand why it’s not OK to ignore it, or to say “it’s not my business” or whatever sorry excuses they may have. You are not going to get it right every time, but if you learn you will put yourself on the path to righteousness.
  7. Normalize Blackness in your life. This was a suggestion from a coworker who gave a presentation with others about racism in everyday life. By this, she meant that white people tend to view Black people as “others” – outside of their normal lives and experiences. Most white people, for example, will accept a Black person as an entertainer, or an athlete, or a servant in some way, as long as it’s on their terms and doesn’t make them uncomfortable. “Twelve Years a Slave” was a devastatingly powerful Best Picture Oscar winner movie few white people have seen. Too heavy for you? “Black-ish” is an award-winning sitcom about a wealthy black family that tackles racism head-on. about Do you read books? Shop at stores? Eat at restaurants? Are they all “white”? Seek out other perspectives of others.
  8. If they don’t get it, boycott. I have not been a strong advocate of sending a message through my wallet. Companies that do outrageous things – such as Hobby Lobby’s refusal to cover birth control for its employees – don’t get my business. But I have been less interested in policing the “rightness” of other things I consume. Now I realize that it’s not enough to plead ignorance or to claim I don’t notice, or not to care when, for example, a clothing designer never features a nonwhite model, or an older model, or a model who’s larger than a size 00. I need to pay more attention to what I buy and the message that sends. So, unless things change (and if they don’t after all the consciousness-raising that’s been going on, I am speechless) I won’t buy from businesses who fail to listen up. For me, that means some European sewing magazines and pattern companies are now on the “do not buy” list, along with companies that have a history of discrimination or pay lip service to racism in our society.

What are you going to do?

Quilting for Healing and Power

I haven’t made a quilt in years – about 15 years to be exact – when I made a baby quilt for my newborn niece. I had moved on long ago to home dec and then to apparel sewing, but every so often I would look through my quilting cotton stash and grow wistful at its possibilities.

That feeling grew stronger last week when I sewed up some stash to make masks for nurse friends of mine. I felt the pull to quilt again – partly to commemorate these homebody Covid-19 days, and partly to keep my hands busy, and partly because I had something to say in the fabric and colors and lines.

I heard about a Quilt-a-Long of this pattern by Denyse Schmidt, a quilt designer who lives nearby. I had bought this pattern years ago during a studio open house. While I loved it, the color choices and bias-cut edges daunted me. I thought, however, that with help I could do it.

quilt

The quilt includes an alphabet of block letters done in a slightly rustic style. The letters are cleverly constructed to nest together with design options for the positive and negative space. And while some letters are quite complex, each piece is numbered so that it’s easy to sew them together, step by step.

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Letter T is an easy one

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The D is pretty complex – pieces D2, D5 and D6 are the negative space

So I had my pattern. But what to say? I thought of one friend who had started me on quilting more than 20 years ago but cannot sew any longer because of illness. I thought of another friend who I’d made a quilt for back when I had been a raw beginner – she lost that quilt and her other possessions in a fire last year. I had sewn pussyhats for them to wear to the 2016 Women’s March. I wanted to make them something else. Finally, I thought of my sister, who I also made a hat for and have marched with a few times.

So I hit on this idea:

quitl design
My quilt message and color scheme

The entire quote is “Nevertheless, she persisted.” The vile Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uttered this sentence while moving to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren during a debate on the Senate floor. It became an instant rallying cry for women everywhere who are told to stay silent, be obedient, and defer to the patriarchy. (For the whole story see this excellent Washington Post article.)

The whole phrase would be a lot to quilt – the thing would be over 10 feet long – but the simple verb says it all anyway.

I designed this as four quilts that can be tied together to form the whole or used individually as wall hangings or other decoration. Each word uses lettering in one color and negative space in the color wheel’s opposite side to symbolize struggle and opposition. I don’t know yet if the background will be black or white – it’s more graphic in black, but I don’t think I have enough fabric in stash and I am using all stash materials to be sustainable. I’ll decide that later. In any event, the binding will be in the opposite color of the background.

I had plenty of fabric to choose from, for most colors:

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Stash – stash – stash – stash

I needed four fabrics for each of the eight colors. I didn’t have much orange or pink, but I have enough to go on with some creative use of “near enough” colors.

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Selected fabrics

The long piece at the bottom has elements of all the colors in it, so I will use it in all the letters as a way to tie them together.

The fabrics are mostly quilting cottons, some with metallic designs, but I am using some scraps of apparel fabrics too.

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The reds include silk and ultrasuede from jackets I’ve made, as well as red and gold cotton leftover from a Christmas project and some upholstery fabric in a dragonfly motif. The greens include some Irish linen scraps.

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I am using coral to fudge the oranges a bit. I also have some African Dutch wax with lilac and gold motifs. The blues include seersucker leftover from a bathrobe project from 20 years ago and velvet leftover from my husband’s smoking jacket.

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Yellows include some gold linen from a pair of pants, batik sunflowers from a quilt I made for my cousin’s wedding, and sunflowers from a vest I made my mother years ago. The purples include more leftover Christmas fabric and some brocade from a Halloween costume for my niece.

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Because I am using green opposite of red, I needed a grassy yellow-green to go opposite the pink. Some of this fabric is leftover from a quilt I made my nephew. The pinks include a red seersucker that reads pink.

In truth, the quilt is going to be kind of ugly – I mean, this is a metric fuckton of colors, textures and styles for one quilt. But that’s also the beauty of it. My friends, sister and I are all different people, after all, united in some things but with plenty of individuality.

Books I Liked in 2019

Tied up with grad school and work obligations, I had to be choosy about what I read in 2019. As in past years, I made it a point to read more female authors’ work. Here are some recommendations:

Science Fiction/Fantasy

I started the year re-reading “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle. Over Christmas, I saw the movie directed by Ava DuVernay, and it was … not how I remembered one of my favorite books of childhood. So I hit up the library and re-read the story. It’s still a fabulous story with a message that really resonates with me today much as it did when I was a child.

That put me on a science-fiction/fantasy kick, so next I re-read Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece “The Left Hand of Darkness.” (Again, with the library.) The book is famous for exploring gender issues in science fiction. It’s strange and beautiful and I highly recommend it.

Then I re-read “Dune” by Frank Herbert – one of the most popular books of my youth. This book did not age well. While the planet and culture Herbert created are fascinating and inventive, the characters and story arcs seem pretty dated and even offensive today.

I continued to plow through the library’s science fiction/fantasy section with “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman – a deliciously funny and scary send-up of the way religion warps societies.

At this point, I gave up on my library visits  and sought out some new sci-fi books. I bought “The Power,” an award-winning book by Naomi Alderman, about a new deadly power that evolves in women, changing tipping the battle of the sexes to women. I highly recommend it, too.

I highly anticipated Margaret Atwood’s sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, “The Testaments.” The original book changed my life in high school, and I re-read it recently in light of the never-ending shitshow that is the Trump administration. Sadly, the Booker Prize-winning “The Testaments” disappointed me. While some might find the story satisfying, I think it missed something deep and true about human nature and the American psyche, unlike the original, which cuts very close to home.

Nonfiction

I had read a lot of sci-fi at this point, so it was time to get real. What better way than with a book about people who live in a slum in Mumbai, India? “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a prize-winning nonfiction book by the journalist Katherine Boo. I was drawn to this book because I noticed these slums in Mumbai, right alongside the glittering modern airport.

airport slum

I was both fascinated and horrified – I took myself on quite a guilt trip but also came to understand more about Indian culture and ways of life. The book is dark and devastating and also funny and sweet in places.

For nonfiction, I also read “Feminism is for Everybody” by bell hooks, the pen name of the feminist professor and activist Gloria Jean Watkins. The book is an approachable primer on what feminism is – and isn’t. I love hook’s simple language explaining how feminism is an antidote to the patriarchy’s institutionalized sexism. I also like how she challenges white cis bourgeois women (such as myself) to basically get our heads out of our asses.

More Fiction

I started but could not finish “The Tale of Genji,” an ancient Japanese work – a kind of proto-novel – written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, in the 11th century. The book follows Genji, a beautiful and charismatic young prince, through his loves and losses, victories and sorrows. The book starts with young Genji, dishing with his friends one rainy night, about the “ideal woman.” I read this in English translation, which included copious notes to help the reader understand the intricacies of 11th-century Japanese life.

I tried to read this after I saw a beautiful exhibit inspired by the book at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I stood a long time looking at this screen, depicting Genji in exile.

Genji in Exile screen

I was fascinated because not only was the text ancient, but a woman wrote it! Sadly, for me the book was hard to get through and follow. There’s a lot of what we modern people would consider misogyny, rape and child abuse. But I imagine it’s a realistic picture of what was going on in Japan at the time.

I was interested in reading something new after that. Unfortunately, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh was not what I was looking for. This novel tells the story of a beautiful privileged young woman who basically sleeps and shirks her life for a year, with no consequences. She emerges from her year richer and happier and more beautiful… blah blah. Awful.

My final recommendation – saving the best for last – is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, the 2019 winner of The Pulitzer Prize. I loved this so much I bought copies for many friends and relatives. It was so beautiful and unexpected and thought-provoking. Please check it out.

Fight Back with Feedback

Do you ever see bad behavior, but you don’t call it out, for whatever reason? Maybe you’re scared. Maybe you don’t want to rock the boat. Maybe you don’t want to get involved. Maybe you’re not sure of what you’re really seeing.

There are a million reasons not to do something, but only one reason where you must act: when it’s the RIGHT thing to do.

Such a predicament happened during a business meeting this week, where some men displayed some very bad behavior against women. So I spoke up. Maybe something will change. Maybe not (these guys didn’t seem like the types given to introspection). But if something does change, it will be because of the way the feedback was received:

  • Done at the moment, not later
  • Based in fact, not opinions or emotions
  • Based on content, not people or personalities
  • Constructive to give people something to act on
  • Band together if you can\
  • Follow up

By “at the moment” and  “based in fact” I mean, sticking to feedback about things that were observed. For example, four men had loud side conversations while a junior woman was presenting at the meeting. It was hard to hear the presenter. The presenter glared at them a few times but they kept going. Finally, I spoke up and asked them to stop. Those are facts that cannot be argued with.

I offered some constructive feedback: the moderator should organize the meeting to provide ample time for presenters. Each presenter should agree to stick to the allotted time. The moderator should intervene if side conversations become noisome.

“Based on content” basically means, no personal attacks. For example, this one guy who presented was giving as “evidence” all these personal anecdotes that were self-serving and not useful. Basically, dude was a serious Baby Boomer blowhard. But that’s not constructive, is it? Better to say: “Your anecdotes help illustrate the issues, but do you have data to back them up? I need data to make decisions, so please provide it next time.”

Finally, banding together helps women navigate these issues. If one woman raises a complaint, it’s easy for the men to dismiss her as “crazy” – an all-purpose epithet for any woman who dares to speak up. But if several women come forward, all agreeing to be constructive, fact-based and focused on content, not personalities, we can get somewhere.

In this case, I had a couple of “off the record” discussions after the meeting with other participants. We agreed on the facts. Then we provided our feedback. We agreed that we will follow up in two weeks to see if our comments were addressed.

Happy St. Distaff Day!

OK, there’s no “Saint Distaff.” Although, any woman who had to wield a distaff when spinning wool or flax is a saint in my book.

Rather, “St. Distaff Day” is Ye Ole Catholic Church’s way of saying: “Get back to work!”

Back in the day, Christmas partying lasted until the Feast of the Epiphany (it still does in some Christian cultures). You know, the old Twelve Days of Christmas” racket.

The day after the Epiphany, the fun was over. Women picked up their distaffs again and resumed their lives of ceaseless toil. Men resumed their ceaseless pastime of tormenting women, which on St. Distaff Day included stealing the spun wool and flax and setting it on fire.

There’s even a snatch of doggerel to mark the merry moment:

“Give St. Distaff all the right;

Then bid Christmas sport good night,

And next morrow everyone

To his own vocation.”

I am on a business trip, so no textile work for me!

Making a Buck from International Day of the Girl Child

October 11 is “International Day of the Girl Child,” a day the United Nations designated to to celebrate girls and to raise awareness about their challenges and triumphs. Since most cultures on earth greatly favor male children, and since girls have to persevere despite inadequate health care, education, discrimination and violence, it seems like a worthy “day” to me.

It also sounds like a great day for a male-dominated business to make a buck, don’t you think?

Steam, the PC game platform that’s overwhelmingly male and that hosts plenty of antagonism against women, offered a big sale today on “female protagonist” video games. “Ooh,” I thought, “let’s check that out!”

On sale were seven games. Seven. Out of the tens of thousands of games available through Steam, these alone were notable for their female protagonists. And I already had played four of them – all first-person adventure types of games where the protagonist is a young woman. Here are some quick reviews:

gonehome
Screenshot of a “Gone Home” poster

  • Gone Home – A college student returns home to find an empty house and no sign of her parents and sister. Players explore and follow clues to figure out what happened. The story unfolds slowly and builds to a climax, sort of like a novel in video game form. The game includes some lesbian themes. This game is a bit basic, but I liked the story.

edithfinch
Screenshot from “What Remains of Edith Finch”

  • What Remains of Edith Finch – A young woman returns to her ancestral home to investigate a so-called curse on her family. She steps into the shoes of various relatives – from infants to old men – to learn about how the curse affected them. This is a gorgeously made game – full of laughs and tragedy in equal measure, with a good surprise at the end and some deep ideas about the unbreakable bonds of family ties.

lifeisstrange
Screenshot from “Life Is Strange”

  • Life Is Strange – A high school student navigates the intersection of school, friends and the supernatural in this game, which unfolds somewhat in a “choose your adventure” style. Players decide how good or bad they want to be, interacting with many complex characters. Actions have consequences. This game includes disturbing episodes of violence against women. It also makes many strong points about the nature of lifelong friendships. I enjoyed playing it, although it was difficult to take at times.

tacoma
Screenshot from “Tacoma”

  • Tacoma – In this game, from the makers of “Gone Home,” the female protagonist investigates a mystery on a space station. It’s gorgeously and inventively made, including good, diverse characters (race, sexuality, body type, ability) and some good female roles. This game also includes some lesbian themes and unfolds much the way “Gone Home” did, but with more wit, inventive gameplay and  imaginative detail.

Who made these games? Only Fullbright (the makers of “Gone Home” and “Tacoma”) has women in leadership positions (the privately held company’s leaders are half women, half men).

The developers of “Edith Finch” were all men at the company Giant Sparrow. A female-led company, Annapurna Pictures, published it. Annapurna is better known as a film production company, whose president, Megan Ellison, has been nominated for Academy Awards for producing “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her,” and “American Hustle.”

“Life Is Strange” also was developed all by men (Dontnod Entertainment) and published by SquareEnix (all men, yet again, but you knew that already). The developers say that other publishers pushed them to make games with male protagonists and that they weren’t trying to “make a statement” by using a female lead. Having played the game, I can tell you they needed to make the protagonist female, because otherwise the whole violence-against-women theme would not pan out. So, yeah, no statement to be made here.

When I play a first-person game, I play as “me.” With most video games, “male” is the default. Why? Because men don’t think it’s important to have a female character, and because they’re afraid that men will be turned off by anything with  whiff of “girly.” They’re trying to sell to men, so the characters are men. If women want to play, that’s fine, but it’s playing in a man’s shoes. Aren’t most animated things like this? Why are all the Minions “male”? Why is there only one female Smurf and one female cartoon M&M? And why does the one female character have to be sexy?

Some games let you choose an avatar for your character, and I choose a female character then. So do a lot of men, only when the avatars can be sexed up in ridiculous costumes. If they play games were they spend a lot of time looking at their avatar’s backside, they’d rather see a woman’s backside in a thong. This is not progress.

If you want to explore games with female characters and feminist themes, I highly recommend the “Nancy Drew” series from HER Interactive. HER is largely run by women.

nancydrew
Nancy Drew game cover art

Nancy’s a feminist icon, to be sure, and she’s fearless and capable in the games, too. The games have a kids’ mode and an adult mode. They’re popular among parents because there’s no sex or bad language, and the violence is pretty benign compared to most games (Nancy gets trapped someplace and has to escape, or has to flee some threat). The games usually have equal numbers of male and female characters of various ages, races and body types, and a recent game had a lesbian character. I also like the games because they display remarkable affinity for rational thought. Nancy’s often called to help solve mysteries where someone attributes a problem to the supernatural – you know – a ghost is haunting a house or whatever. Nancy is clear that she doesn’t fall for ghosts and other woo-woo but rather sticks to the facts until she uncovers that – just as in real life – people use others’ superstitions or religious beliefs to cover their own misdeeds. The games are great stories to bash magical thinking.

It’s interesting to note that even when there are female protagonists, they are thin and young. Would the entire gaming world explode if a game featured an overweight 48-year-old protagonist?