Saturday, January 31, 2015

Reading in 2015: A Brief History of Time

In yet another deviation from the reading list, the second new-to-me book of 2015 was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. (Have you seen The Theory of Everything yet? No? You should. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones turn in striking and moving performances as Stephen and Jane Hawking.)

I don't have a lot to see about A Brief History of Time because I'm fairly certain I didn't understand most of it beyond a general comprehension of the words on the page. Still, I don't know if I'll ever be able to watch Doctor Who again without contemplating the feasibility of time travel. However, Hawking writes in an accessible style, and although I found the science intimidating, I still enjoyed the book on the whole and might take another crack at it next year.

Up next: Not sure. Maybe The Time Machine by H.G. Wells.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why I Keep Arguing with You about Disney Princess Waistlines

Last year, denizens of the Internet debated how "realistic" the waistlines of Disney princesses are. From the "unrealistic" side: Such unreasonable depictions of human bodies send dangerous messages to young girls. From the "realistic" side: People with waists that narrow are uncommon but not impossible, especially because they're wearing corsets.

I saw both sides in my social media feed and, when possible, I joined the discussion. For the record, I'm on the side of reasonable proportions and healthy body image always. I think their waists are unnatural.

First, some privilege-checking. I have a 26.5" waist. I am not a classic hourglass. I am flat-chested and thin-ish, but there are parts of my body that I would change if I could. At the same time, as a small, pretty person, I am very well represented in popular media. When I watch movies and television shows intended for my demographic, I see myself.

With that out of the way, this is why I will keep engaging with this argument even though it gets my hackles up and makes me feel angry and uncomfortable every single time:

  • Giving the heroines of the most commonly told stories of childhood one body shape is dangerous. Little girls probably won't say that in so many words, but they'll internalize it, and the multi-billion-dollar beauty industry will reinforce that ideal so that when they grow up into young women, they'll be thoroughly steeped in the idea that to succeed, they have to look a certain way. Regardless of what that look is, it is unrealistic to make all of the "winners" look the same because in real life, they don't.
  • A corset does not magically make your waist the size of your neck. I'd have to tighten a corset fourteen inches to make my waist the size of my neck. 14 inches! Even when I pull the measuring tape super tight and squeeze in, I can only get my waist down to 22.5". To be fair, I haven't been training my waist for decades so maybe that's a part of why. Or maybe not. According to the Daily Mail in 2012, burlesque artist Dita von Teese attributed her 22-inch waist to 22 years of wearing corsets, and even she can only squish down to 16.5 inches. That's still 4 inches bigger than my neck! Yes, I understand it is utterly ridiculous to compare my neck to Dita von Teese's corseted waist . . . Oh, wait. That's exactly the point.
  • Your disapproval of the word "unrealistic" does not invalidate the argument. Personally, I think the word "unnatural" better describes the proportions of most of the princesses. A corseted waist is not natural; it is manipulated. When such a waist is combined with the generous busts with which many of the princesses are endowed, the resulting figure is indeed unrealistic for the vast majority of women, particularly if they want to maintain their health. In any case, if your concern is more with the word "unrealistic" than it is with the broader argument, change that word to one that is more appealing to you and move on.
  • "Historical accuracy" is not a good enough reason. If it's a historical argument (i.e. "Women at that time would have worn corsets."), let's push it one further and give them less-than-perfect teeth and blemished skin and hands calloused from all that housecleaning (I'm looking at you, Cinderella.). I won't accept the "historical accuracy" argument when so much else is deliberately retouched for appeal.
  • It's a fairy tale kingdom, whether or not it's reminiscent of the golden days of yore. Who says that the women in wherever it was once upon a time wore corsets anyway? Maybe the beauty standard in fairy land then was broader, and maybe the women decided they were okay with not cinching their waists. Would that be so terrible?
Part of me can't believe we're even still talking about this, but recently, I witnessed a rather vitriolic exchange between two teenagers on Facebook (a curvy gal and a rail-thin guy) so I guess we're not quite through picking apart whether or not Disney princesses have realistic waists. I've rambled on a bit long here and haven't even gotten to the part where cartoon villains often have physical characteristics that are off-putting or absurd or don't conform with modern beauty standards. If that's not just as problematic as this waistline situation, I don't know what is.

Those are my two cents, and I'll just leave them right here.

What do you think? Should we even be worried about how narrow or broad a cartoon's waist is?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Reading in 2015: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Unsurprisingly, I deviated from the reading list pretty much immediately thanks to the intriguing cover of Helen Oyeyemi's novel Boy, Snow, Bird.

Intrigued by references to the classic tale of Snow White (mirrors, wicked stepmothers) and drawn in sufficiently by the jacket synopsis, I picked up the novel at the library Friday and finished it just this afternoon. Oyeyemi develops very distinct voices for Boy and Bird, who narrate sections by turn, but Snow remains rather an enigma, known only through her few letters to Bird and through others' (mainly Boy's) observations of her. Perhaps this is purposeful, but as a reader, I wanted to know more about Snow, as much as I wanted to know Boy and Bird.

Unfortunately, loose ends abound, from the mystery of the mirrors to the man who raised Boy. The novel meanders through the workaday events of the characters' lives, making a dramatic reveal right toward the end but then just . . . stopping. I arrived at the end of the novel without any real grasp of what had happened, and maybe that's more a reflection of me as a reader than of the novel itself, but I wanted more.

The exploration of race weaves through the narrative, jumping now to the forefront but then receding in favor of other topics, as happens in reality as well, I suppose. Why, though, place such emphasis on the racial tension faced by the book's central characters only to abandon it for a last-minute, shoddily told conflict involving Boy's father and having nothing to do with race but yes, still involving mirrors and the truths and lies they tell us?

All in all, the novel had great promise but failed to deliver. However, Oyeyemi uses great skill in speaking through distinct character voices with well-paced style. I will likely read another of her books. I've heard good things about Mr. Fox, and I think the library has a copy. For now, a diversion in the form of Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market."