punishing self-defence

My brother told me about this at Christmas-time, and I'm still pondering it, so it seems like it wants to be a blog post. What happened (at least the third-hand version) was this:

Niece the Elder (age 7) was at a reading table at school, the only girl in a group of boys. She was fine with that — most of her friends are boys. Like every other table in the class, there was a pile of books in the middle, and the kids at each table had to choose a book, read it, and write an assignment about it.

Even though she was fine with being in the group, one of the boys at the same table was not fine with having even one girl present. Niece the Elder wanted to read a book about cats, but the boy snatched it away and shoved a book about princesses at her.

"You have to read that, 'cos you're a girl," he said.

"But I want to read about cats," said my niece.

"Well, we're all boys, so we can't read about princesses."

"I want to read about cats!"

"Oooh, so what are you going to do about it? Cry? That's what girls do, cry. Crybaby!"

Nobody less than twice her size makes Niece the Elder cry, so instead she picked up the princess book and threw it at the boy.

It hit him in the face, so he started crying, which brought the teacher over. My niece was up-front about throwing the book, so she was told to go sit by herself and do the assignment. In this classroom (and this is a whole other blog post), sitting by yourself is in itself a punishment.

As my niece got up and left the table, she patted the boy on the arm. "Now who's the crybaby?" she said. That's when she got assigned a detention.

In the note to Niece the Elder's parents, the teacher added that my niece was assigned to another group "where she would be happier." Presumably one with no young Archie Bunkers in it.

And here's my thing.

Of course Niece the Elder should have been punished for throwing the book. She has to learn that physically hurting people to get your way, even when you're in the right, is a bad thing to do. I think that part is beyond dispute. Physical violence cannot be condoned or excused in a classroom setting.

But I keep thinking about it from the boy's point of view. Sure, he got hit in the face with a tossed picture book, but it was his own actions that started this whole thing. If he'd been less of a junior asshole, none of this would have happened.

As far as I've been able to learn, besides a mark on his face that has long faded by now, this kid got everything he wanted with no consequences. He got to make his reading circle boys-only. He removed the only person in the group who had the guts to stand up to him. He bullied and belittled a fellow classmate for no other reason than his own budding sexism, and he totally got away with it.

So yeah, I approve Niece the Elder getting a detention because of the book-throwing, but I can't figure out why the kid who started it all not only got off scot-free, but was positioned as the entirely innocent injured party. And although this particular incident was a boy versus girls thing, I recognise it's a bullies versus the bullied thing. Boys can be victims of bullying too, and girls can be shits.

I've been discussing this with my friends and thinking back on my own years in elementary school, and we have similar stories. J-A recounted how a boy used to pinch her when the teacher wasn't looking, and when she pinched back in self-defence, he would howl. Then she would get in trouble with the teacher. I have memories of being told not to "pick on" classmates — after they'd picked fights with me, and I'd had the... luck? temerity? to win.

An interesting point about my experiences: although usually the reason kids would pick on me was because I was a "browner" (if that's not in your local slang, they meant kid with good grades, teacher's pet), I also happened to be one of the tallest kids in the class. From a physical standpoint, if I'd ever learned to fight — not that I ever did — I could have seriously hurt any of the girls and most of the boys in my classes up to about Grade 5 without even thinking about it. It wasn't just mean to pick on me; it was potentially suicidal. They were counting on my track record of not hitting back to get away with it. Which they did. When it was really bad, I used to hide in the back of the class and read a book during recess until the teacher specifically told me to go outside.

Damn. Now I wish I'd risked a few detentions and decked the little bastards while I still could.

Niece the Elder is only in Grade 2, and she's one of the smallest kids in her class — she doesn't have the physical advantage of height that I chose not to use. She's been in school for four years, and already she takes detentions in stride as part of the cost of getting an education. Her parents have long noted a pattern: she never starts a fight, but if someone starts one with her, she'll damn well finish it. Meanwhile, her marks are among the highest in the class, so eventually I suppose she'll start getting picked on for those in addition to liking cats over princesses.

I admire her willingness to stick up for herself, and for keeping punishments in perspective. When I was her age, even a verbal reprimand from a teacher would leave me upset for days.

But I'm very uneasy with this idea that people who stick up for themselves when they're bullied get punished, while the ones who did the bullying get coddled as victims. I keep thinking about how this is going to play out in high school... and then university... and then adulthood. I keep thinking about what Niece the Elder is actually learning from these incidents: not just that violence is bad, but that sticking up for yourself leads to punishment, while the instigator never gets touched. And what's that boy learning? That he can verbally push people into acting out, at which point he may need to work on ducking faster, but he will get his way if he keeps acting like a shit.

Neither of those are very good lessons.

hunting for the queen of cups

Three weeks ago, as I was getting dressed, the underwire on my favourite bra poked out.

So I put on my second-favourite bra, and by the time I got to work, its underwire was poking out. I went to the washroom, pulled out the escaping underwire so it wouldn't scratch me, and went through the day hoping it wasn't obvious I was asymmetrical.

Loose-fitting, empire-waisted... I bet no formulas were involved, either.

Loose-fitting, empire-waisted... I bet no formulas were involved, either.

The following morning I put on my third favourite bra. About twenty minutes before I got to work... yup. Underwire poking out. This time it was on the other side, though.

Like every single woman I've ever talked to, I have bra-shopping horror stories. For a garment nearly every adult woman (and some drag-queen men) wear, it really is total hell to find one that fits. It doesn't matter if you know your size, because "your size" in one brand will not be the same in another brand. There's a reason why some women's lingerie drawers are filled with the exact same bra in different colours, and it's not lack of imagination on the owners' parts.

I tried to shop in-person for what I thought was "my size", and the sales clerk at the lingerie shop said she'd never even heard of that size. (It was the size I was wearing at the time — I'd managed to mend Bra #3.)

Since bricks-and-mortar shop clerks were hostile and unhelpful, I ordered on-line, and the bra that arrived in the mail didn't fit. "Didn't fit" in this case meant "squeezed so tight I felt I could relate to what Carrie Fisher went through filming Star Wars".

Okay, this wasn't working. Time to think this over again.

I did some research, and found the Reddit board A Bra That Fits. There are some fascinating, and depressing, discussions on that board. While the posters seem to agree with the well-worn stat that 85% of women are wearing the wrong-size bra, they also point out that far fewer than 85% of women are idiots. If women can have a successful career, rear children, and do all the other things functioning adults do, surely buying lingerie shouldn't be so arcane?

A Bra That Fits has a related web page that explains the vagaries of bra sizing, and why women get misled as to which size fits them. The current bra sizing standard used in UK/US/Canada/Australia (and New Zealand?) was invented in 1932, and hasn't been updated since. Think about how much taller and larger women in those countries generally are compared to what they were in 1932. Yeah. The discussion board's regulars have also analysed the "plus 4" or "plus 5" sizing formula commonly used in lingerie shops, and have determined that it's designed to encourage women to buy bras with bands which are too large and cups which are too small. The result is a size which fits more neatly into the common offerings at shops, but which typically provides insufficient support for women with larger busts, and discomfort all around.

The discussion board regulars have created a size calculator to let women determine their true bra size. I tried it. The size was nowhere near what I usually wore, but the Reddit posts were full of stories of women discovering the best-fitting size was nowhere near what they usually wore. I went back on-line and ordered a bra in my "new" size.

This time, the band was more comfortable, but the cups were big enough I could have got both breasts into one of them. I could wear the "new size" bra over my old, worn-out bra, and still had room.

If you try out the calculator, you'll see it has a caveat posted that the size calculation will become inaccurate if your measurements are outside a certain range. I am not in the range. Note that the traditional sizing formula will also not work for me. Both formulas start to give inaccurate answers if you are either side of the range. This is why "oh, women just need to grab a measuring tape and a calculator so they know their correct bra size" is nonsense. I give points to the Reddit group for being up-front about the limits on the calculator, and for acknowledging the formulas can only get you so far.

I was getting tired of racking up "dead" transactions on my credit card, waiting for the on-line returns department to reverse the charges, so I decided to head out to the bricks-and-mortar shops again. I met up with J-A for lunch, and she offered to be Sam to my Frodo, wandering the department stores and specialty shops of downtown Toronto until we found something that fit me.

As with the fictional Sam, I had to wonder if she would have agreed so readily if we had known what the journey was going to be like. I suspect trekking through rough country to drop a magical ring into a volcano would have been easier.

We only went to two shops. The first stop was at a flagship department store that had always been reliable in the past, but which totally struck out this time (to be fair, they had a lingerie sale on, so sizes were limited). Out of the entire, enormous lingerie section, there were only two shelves, and one brand, in either my old size or my new size. The sales clerk didn't offer to measure me, and disappeared once she had led me to the little corner where my sizes were. I tried on two bras, both of which were too small in some places and too large in others, and promptly gave up.

The second shop is where I usually get my jeans and office wear. They have a lingerie section, but I've never bought anything from it because they didn't carry my old size. We went in, looking for bras that were in between my old size and my new one. Six bras in a variety of sizes collected, a sales clerk got me a change room, and I started trying them on.

None of them were fitting, but the last one came close.

I had the change-room door half-open so J-A could see what didn't fit where, and the sales clerk asked if she could check something. Usually I don't like getting this close to total strangers, but at this point I was too frustrated to mind. She put her fingers behind the back strap, and could fit four fingers in without even touching me. We agreed, measurements be damned, this was a good sign that the band was too big. She disappeared into the shop floor, and came back with a bra that was two (!) band sizes smaller, but one cup bigger.

After you've tried on eight bras at two different shops, trying on a ninth doesn't seem like that big a hassle. Back into the change room I went.

And what do you know. The damn thing fit.

I tried on seventeen bras in total yesterday, and found four that fit (two of them are identical, just in different colours).

Now, here are some sizing stats:

Old size: 40B
New, calculated size: 46DD
In between, estimated size: 44C
Size that fit: 40D

Remember, there is an entire sister blog on this site where I post about my DIY work, most of which is clothing I make for myself. My mum and grandmother made clothes for themselves and for me. I've known about ease and alterations and shaping since my age was in single digits. I grew up listening to, and participating in, advanced discussions about fit. Before this shopping trip, I was seriously considering taking a course in bra making. I might still do that.

Recall as well that, as with all women's clothing, there are judgements attached to every size available, and in the case of bras, cup sizes in particular. We've all heard it: A cups are "fried eggs", D cups are "curvy". Anything bigger than a DD or so is "huge".

I've always been told I have small breasts, and shamed for it from some quarters. And now it turns out I'm a D, which might still be small in proportion to the rest of me, but does prove the judgey people wrong — not that they were ever right. My breasts have never changed that much, although they definitely "present" better in the new bra (I spent part of this morning making sure my shirts still fit all right, since the new bra means both breast and non-breast tissue are sitting in different places than they did before.) One of the things I've learned in the past couple of weeks is that cup sizes change as the band size changes, even though the letter designator stays the same.

Look what it took to find a bra that fit. Is it any wonder 85% of women are wearing the wrong size?

Men: J-A, the sales clerk, and I were trying yesterday to think of a single men's item of clothing which would necessitate standing around shirtless in a changeroom, trying on seventeen different versions to find four that fit. We couldn't think of anything. Any ideas? There's getting measured for a suit, but as I understand it, you get to keep your shirt on for that.

Postscript: J-A sent me this video of men who voluntarily wore bras for a week, just to feel what it was like.

the feminist criticism corner (Daredevil as the main example)

There are some Netflix Daredevil spoilers below, because the topic for this blog post came on while I was watching the series. I tried to keep them minimalist and as non-spoilerish as possible, and to stick to the earlier episodes in my examples.

Okay. Here’s my thing.

I am a feminist, and I have a BA Hon in English Literature, and if those two facts didn’t make you stop reading, you will not be surprised to learn that I enjoy applying feminist interpretations to storytelling. Any kind. Spoken word stories. Written stories. Stories presented for TV and cinema and plays.

I also enjoy comic book superhero stories. I started reading comics when I was seven or eight, and although my parents made me stop reading them when I was ten and sell my collection, in my adult years I’ve got back into reading graphic novels like 1602 and V for Vendetta. (And Persepolis and Maus… you get the idea.)

And it seems to me that in the popular feminist criticism of things, it's easy to  paint oneself into a corner, where any non-aligned reader might throw up their hands and decide there's no pleasing feminists. And, since I am a feminist, I see that as a bad thing.


  • In the Netflix Daredevil TV series, when Karen Page wakes up beside the dead body of her co-worker and is arrested for murder, she’s a disposable motivation for the hero to start his investigation of the villains. Yet when she fights back, later on in the story, she’s a “stereotypical strong female character,” and therefore boring/not realistic/and so on… yet all these reactions are happening to one character. Surely that’s more an indicator that she’s well-rounded?

    I could write a whole series of blogs about Karen Page as depicted in Netflix’s Daredevil, but I want to keep this more general.
  • Women characters who are daughters, mothers, wives get attacked because they're their roles, not people, and women are not just defined by their family or romantic relationships. Yet women characters who are not portrayed as daughters, mothers, wives are attacked because they’re one-dimensional, or “female characters with male character traits”. (And what the hell are “female character traits” and “male character traits” anyhow? I thought we were supposed to be working at getting past stereotypical gender binary personality traits.)
  • Female characters who get sexually assaulted are no good because that works into the whole woman-as-victim thing. So we’re supposed to forget that sexual violence is used as a weapon, that it’s out there, that it happens all the freaking time. I can see the merit of the argument that it doesn’t fit in this or that specific storyline, but not that it gets portrayed “too often” or “is a cliché”. It’s a cliché in real life too, but unfortunately that doesn't seem to be stopping any rapists.
  • If a woman is physically small and gets assaulted or kidnapped, she’s being portrayed as a “weak woman”. Yet if said physically small woman figures out a way to fight back and overcome her attacker (Lisbeth Salander with a nail gun, Karen Page with a regular gun), it’s “unrealistic” and we’re back to “strong female characters” again. I'd rather the takeaway that while women tend to be smaller and not as strong as men, that just makes it an unfair fight, not an impossible one.

  • If a woman is a force for good, she’s put on a pedestal. If she’s the villain, it’s misogyny.

  • If a woman rescues a man, it’s motherhood symbolism. If a man rescues a woman, it’s infantilism.

After reading some of the comments about recent shows, films, and books, it makes me nervous to write anything other than Beckett-esque, gendered-pronouns-so-you-can-tell-the-characters-apart minimalist stories.

We have to ditch the hair triggers. We have to stop freaking out because this or that type of scene is portrayed, and experience the entire story. I was always taught to read the whole book before writing an essay about it. Otherwise, we’re going to miss the part where the stereotype or trope gets subverted, or criticised, or balanced off. Experiencing a story is not supposed to be some sociological drinking game where you yell, "Sexist trope!" every time you spot something. Pointing out recurring tropes across multiple stories can be useful, thoughtful criticism, but lying in wait for a story to "screw up" and portray "that scene" — not so much.

Maybe you came to a different conclusion, but it was pretty clear to me by the end of Daredevil (Season 1) that when the bad guys decided to frame Karen for her co-worker’s murder, they definitely hung it on the wrong person. It was a huge mistake that cost them a lot, and not just because she wound up friends with the superhero (remember: she doesn't know he's the superhero). She does a lot of damage to them entirely through her own agency, her own network-building.

One thing I noticed about Daredevil is while the women did act violently, the source — the force that necessitated the violent response — tended to be men. And as for men with men — it’s a wonder so many of them are standing at the end. It’s almost like the story is showing us violence is a bad thing, and that without the advantages of height and upper body strength (which shouldn't count for much in civilised society), men don’t really have anything over women. Through a superhero TV show, with a male-dominated cast of characters?

Now that’s interesting.

sexist crap in numbers

I retweet about this sort of thing a lot on Twitter, and I read about it a lot, but I don't blog about it a lot. Tony Noland wrote an excellent post about it that I read earlier today, though, and it made me remember something I've always meant to expand upon.

A simpler version of this appeared a couple of years ago in the comments section of a newspaper article I read about women getting catcalled in the street. I'd love to link to it and give credit to the poster.... but the problem is, this is so widespread and gets reported on so much, it will be almost impossible to Google the correct article, and comments rarely get tracked by search engines. If someone knows the reference, please contact me so I can include it.

The basic math runs through some easy-to-agree-upon, back-of-the-envelope numbers, and it goes like this: say a woman lives in a city big enough to support public transit. Every weekday morning, she goes to work on the subway, and passes by, say, five hundred people. That's not a lot for a busy city, especially when you count the time she spends walking on the street from the subway stop to her office. Every evening after work, she goes home on the same subway, and passes another five hundred people. So that's 1,000 people a day who see this woman in public, not counting if she goes out for lunch, or runs an errand, or gets groceries on the weekend, or whatever. For argument's sake, let's say she works a little more or fewer hours than usual, so the 500 people who see her in the morning are completely different from the 500 who see her in the evening.

About 50% of the people who see the woman are men, and the other 50% are women. So every workday, that woman is seen by 500 men who don't know her, 250 in the morning and 250 in the evening.

Unfortunately for the woman, of the 250 men she encounters every morning during her commute, 5 of them are loudmouthed jerks. If they notice something about how she's dressed, or the shade of lipstick she's wearing, or even just if the stars are right, they are going to catcall her, or ask her to get her tits out, or whatever. You fill in the blanks. The same goes for her evening commute. So that's 10 jerks out of 1,000 people this woman is going to encounter on her commute. Jerks being jerks, they don't just call out crap once during their commute — they just continue with it whenever they think they can get away with it.

Let's be conservative and say she only catches the attentions of one of the jerks once a week. Let's say there's another two times a week she's within earshot when a jerk says something to one of the 499 other women doing the same commute our example woman is.

That works out to:

  • Out of 1,000 people, and specifically 500 men, only 1% are jerks who ask women they don't know to get their tits out (or whatever) on the subway.
  • This woman gets asked to get her tits out (or whatever) an average of 48 times a year. That doesn't count vacation weeks or total stat holidays. On the other hand, we're also leaving out all the non-commute times she encounters jerks, and she can pretty much count on something happening at least once a week.
  • Even if it's not directly happening to her, she gets to hear jerks mouthing off to other women at least once a week.

Still with me? If none of that sounds farfetched, consider:

  • Even though only 1% of the men are being jerks in this little thought experiment, that's enough for the woman to either encounter or overhear harassment on a weekly basis.
  • Since the jerks are men the woman doesn't know, that makes every man she doesn't yet know a potential jerk. Perception is reality, and lived experience is perception.
  • Chances are, no-one will call out the jerk. Not the woman getting harassed, because she doesn't want it to escalate. Not the women who are within earshot, because they don't want to be targeted. And not the men within earshot because... well, if our back-of-the-envelope numbers are right, they're the vast majority, but since the women are all acting like they're ignoring a fart, the men may well either follow suit or figure the jerk's not actually hitting his target because none of the women are reacting strongly.

I cannot overstate how annoying this crap is. It's as if the doorway to your bathroom was tiled in coarse sandpaper, and you always had to walk on it in your bare feet every time you went to use the toilet. You can't cover up the floor because otherwise the door won't close, and you can't step over it, but the sandpaper hurts. Not enough to make your feet form callouses, and not enough to cause serious injury, but it's freaking annoying.

You start to brace yourself for it. You start to tense up every time you walk on something similar like patio stone or cork tiling, even though those don't hurt. You spend all your time looking down at where you're stepping, just in case.

And this is only the overt, loudmouthed sexist crap. If you're a woman alone, it gets louder. And crappier.

So what to do about these jerks who are "not all men", but easy enough to encounter? I hate to say it, but we're going to have to call them out. And by "we", I mean everyone. And by everyone, I don't mean the bystander who yells something back, I mean several bystanders yelling something back, at the same time. One person saying, "don't say crap like that" won't get listened to. Fifteen people who don't know each other but who all chime in with the same thing might.

It might not change the jerks' minds, but it might make them shut up more often. And stopping jerkish behaviour counts for something, when perception is reality and reality is lived experiences.