Butter chicken for dinner tonight — yum! It’s in the crockpot and starting to make the house smell delicious. Combined with the fact that it’s summer and my proposal deadlines are all stalled until my adviser returns from her (well-deserved) vacation, that means I find myself with a bit of writing time on my hands, and a moment to muse on my life, rather than frantically/busily trying to fix yet one more bit in the proposal. I confess I’m starting to actually enjoy methodology (gasp! ;-) as I finally get a handle on it, too. I should write something about that… later, I think.
During these bits of free time, however, I’ve also taken the opportunity to do a bit more freelance editing for folks, in order to pick up a bit more pocket money. It’s been rather interesting, in an odd way, because I tend to get a light overview of whatever the paper’s subject is, as I perform the editing process. Some of the folks I edit for, as an example, are working on various psychology degrees, and I’m getting a sort-of refresher course on psychology’s epistemological background — what the field thinks is important, what’s worth researching, stuff like that. What makes this oddly intriguing to me this time is that I’m doing this editing and psychology reviewing — while also holding all the women’s spirituality stuff in my head.
There’s a concept in feminist scholarship called a feminist heuristic of suspicion, which I really love having in my mental toolkit. Heuristics are a commonsense set of rules intended to increase the probability of solving some problem. A feminist heuristic of suspicion was originally and is still most commonly used, to my knowledge, in feminist religious apologetics, though I think it’s applicable just about anywhere. What it means is that while you’re reading you keep constantly in mind the fact that the text you’re reading was most likely written primarily by men, for men, and about men. Recognizing the imperfect human natures of the male authors thereby allows you to perform a valid and valuable feminist critique of the writings — through demonstrating that, for example, demeaning portrayals of women in the “sacred” texts are the products of men’s beliefs and attitudes — and not those of some deity that inexplicably decided to hate and punish half of what it created.
A simple example off the top of my head is the realization that hit me while reading… hmm, I think it was Rita M. Gross’s Feminism & Religion: An Introduction. I do not always agree with Dr. Gross, but if I’m remembering rightly she was incredibly pertinent while discussing Judaism’s covenant with Yahweh, right around the time Moses destroyed the Golden Calf. As she notes, Yahweh pretty much says flat out that he will make a covenant with the patriarchs of the families there, and their sons, and their sons’ sons, and so on with all their male descendants.
All right, that’s all fine and good… but what about the women? Apparently their god has made no covenant with them?! Do they somehow not deserve Yahweh’s attention and love, but rather only the men do? I consider that supposition deeply invalid, especially considering how many stories of powerful and devout women there are in the bible. Alternatively, the argument could be raised that the women of that time were considered chattel, and Yahweh would no more make a covenant with them than he would with an ox or a mule. I refuse that argument simply because it is deeply insulting to women’s agency, and denotes a deity which I personally don’t think deserves worship. Further, if that really is the case in the story… then why was Miriam, Moses’ adoptive sister, considered a powerful leader and a woman in her own right?
This is where a feminist heuristic of suspicion comes in really handy: it enables the reader to notice glaring issues like this, and — in the best case scenario — bring them to the public eye so that reasoned discussion can occur to try to fix things. That’s also why I try to keep that heuristic commonly in mind when doing my reading… and it’s what caused me to notice something odd while editing some of the psychology papers.
Some of the papers were about eating disorders — which are now (I think rightfully) considered a disease rather than simply, say, a lack of will-power on the part of the afflicted person. Apparently eating disorders are mostly an issue for women, and are incredibly difficult to cure due to their being caused by a complex mélange of interacting factors which include — in no particular order — psychological issues, genetics, cultural socialization, media pressure, current biological complications, and behavioral teachings. Further, it appears eating disorders frequently (or most often? Not sure…) crop up in association with other stressors in the women’s lives — such as unexpectedly losing a partner or fear of losing a partner’s love, self-loathing, domestic violence, bad body image, sexual abuse, and/or other equally terrible events. Fortunately psychologists and other therapy professionals still continue to do the best they can to help these women, addressing the stressors they know of in each individual case.
So I was editing along and feeling vaguely sorry for both the afflicted women, and the professionals struggling almost fruitlessly to help them heal… and at some point my feminist heuristic of suspicion sat up and smacked me across the nose with the proverbial rolled-up newspaper. There was a unifying theme in all these women’s stories! They all lived in an ultimately misogynistic culture — one which pressured them constantly to struggle always towards an impossible body image, and which frequently “punished” them for their lack of physical perfection.
Have you ever heard the old saying about stopping a disease at its source, rather than just dealing with the symptoms? That’s what I found myself suddenly wondering: why is psychology dealing with these women as separable cases of a disease? Why is it struggling to address each individual woman’s poor body image and/or lingering PTSD from emotional violence or rape or childhood abuse, or whatever the terrible physical or psychic injury was that they’d suffered, that brought them to having an eating disorder? That wasn’t the source of what was wrong, from what I could see from my (admittedly prejudiced) perspective. No, the real disease all these women were struggling with… appeared to be the destructive effects of living in a patriarchal culture that considers women second-class citizens, valued by men primarily only for their looks.
So I asked myself: if that’s the case then why is psychology working to treat these women’s symptoms — but not the actual disease which is causing the symptoms? After all, if all these women had malaria, say, or rabies, we’d doubtless see extremely swift and effective analysis of the infection, followed by a hunt for its source like you wouldn’t believe — and then whatever the cause of the disease was, it would be ruthlessly stamped out! -so that no one else could fall victim to so dangerous and lethal a malady.
…and poof! — there was the (unpleasant and unwanted) answer to my query: psychology as a field of study is androcentric; it is primarily male-conceived, -oriented, and -taught. Freud and Jung are considered the “fathers” of psychology — there aren’t really any “mothers” that are recognized, despite (as a single example) Anna Freud’s extensive work — and in their writings both Freud and Jung were incredibly patronizing and dismissive of women. Also, comparatively speaking, malaria or rabies harms all humans — but emotional destruction due to an abusive and androcentric culture? That most often only affects women. Consequently, if you don’t consider women as important as men then your response to that statement could quite logically be an indifferent, “So what?” To be fair, too, I suspect most people don’t even notice the toxic cultural stew we all swim in. It would be a bit like asking a fish if it recognized the wetness of the water it lived in.
So what does this leave me? I don’t have a checklist of quick-fix items to suggest, unfortunately. But I do know that changing cultural issues like privilege or racism begin with recognition and admission of their existence. Admittedly, it’s not much fun to self-examine and realize one has been a bigot… but I also firmly believe if I am to change the world, I must start with myself. This is, therefore, my personal recognition of bigotry: I have been patronizing to women who had eating disorders — especially overweight women. I can see now how I did nothing to help them with that attitude — that, in fact, I added to the weight of the culturally-born disease with which they were struggling.
From now on I will do my best to not be a dick to other women. Instead I will try however I can to help alleviate the casual cruelties our culture teaches us to impose on women. This androcentric culture may have done its best to demonize and vilify both women’s bodies and the natural, healthy processes of menstruation and giving birth — but I will not continue to help it do so. Our bodies can do something amazing, unique, divine: women can, if they wish, create life. Let’s not forget that in the great work towards a less patriarchal and more egalitarian society: women are sacred.