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Dear Darlena

I wrote a post about 365 feminist selfie at Babble. A woman named Darlena responded with her own post. I reproduced her post below with my responses interspersed throughout. She's in quotes. I'm not.


“You are wrong.”

What a crazy coincidence. I think you’re wrong. Do I get to think that? Probably not. In your opinion, I don’t get to do a lot of things. Luckily, we don’t live in a world where your opinion about what I can and can’t do matters. Oddly enough—brace yourself—I can do whatever I want.

“Now, I know that, as someone with a penis, hearing that you are wrong will make you flare up with anger for a split second, before you catch yourself and laugh it off with bravado, telling yourself that someone who thinks you could possibly be wrong obviously doesn't know anything.

Oh, wait, I don't know that.

I don't know that because I don't know anything about you. And I certainly don't know anything about your penis, or how it would possibly play into your inner monologue. I also know nothing about your inner monologue. 

Even though I have a husband, and a father, and am also full of rage, much, apparently like yourself. 

As such, with my admitted lack of knowledge, I would not presume to tell you about how you would react to being wrong, or why you would react that way.”

Actually, you did tell me how I would react and why. But then you wrote a fake retraction, which allowed you to say it and then “unsay” it because you are very funny and clever.

“Can you do me the same favor?”

Certainly. I would never presume to tell you about how you would react to being wrong, or why you would react that way because I don’t know you and also because I don’t really care about your reactions to being wrong or their motives.

“Because, frankly, I am getting fed up with you people telling me what to do.”

I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. I would offer some advice but you’re fed up with that kind of thing. Nonetheless, I’m sorry you’re having a really hard time with people expressing their opinions on the internet when their opinions are contrary to yours. That sounds really hard. I hope you’re muddling through. 

“Now we'll skip the lazy argument here (man talking about feminism full stop) because I know several men who talk well about feminism, and go right to a similar, but not quite the same argument (man thinking he is using sound logic to tell women how to be better feminists). I cannot abide this.”

You can’t abide it? Oh no. Then what will you do? I mean, seriously, you’re in quite a jam when you’re incapable of abiding something that I did, have every right to do, and will continue to do. I hope you can either get better at abiding or that it’s not too painful to not abide things you can’t control.

“Your whole argument is lost when you say: ‘The thrust of the 365 feminist selfie project attempts to destabilize traditionally restrictive notions of beauty to make room for all women in the Palace of Pretty.’

That's not what the project is about for me. You don't get to tell me what a project I'm doing is about.”

Here, you said two different things. You said my argument was lost because of that quote, which, okay, you’re entitled to your opinion about the strengths and weaknesses of my argument. And then you told me how I don’t get to tell you what a project you’re doing is about. Of course I don’t. That was a very good point. But, because I don’t know you, I have to confess that I wasn’t telling you anything. I was telling my audience my understanding of the project—an understanding borne of research I conducted. Part of that research includes the following quote from the project’s originator: “I hated how I looked on TV, but I did that [a previous 365 project] and felt more comfortable. And the same for photos. After that 365 project, I don’t love how I look, but I am far more comfortable saying, ‘I look good today. I look good in this outfit.’ This has helped immensely as I have gained a lot of weight during the stress of graduate school.” This statement, and many more like it, led me to believe that the project had something to do with the way women looked, their comfort with the way they looked, weight, and looking good. If you think that making the leap from those understandings to using words like “appearance,” “attractive,” “beauty,” and “pretty” is faulty reasoning, again, you have every right to disagree with my understanding of the project. No problem.

“I don't owe you this, but for me this project is a chronicle through picture of my achievements and struggles this year, as a person. It is about self-exploration, and documentation in a way I've never been free to do before. It has nothing to do with acceptance into your Pretty Palace.”

That sounds like a wonderful project. Good for you. Chronicle, explore, and document. What an incredible journey.

“Then you really nail your coffin together when you follow that ridiculous generalization up with this: ‘She might write a poem a day or learn about a new woman author every day. Maybe she could do a science experiment a day or plant a tree every day. Run a mile every day? Or maybe she could make it a point to seek out a sad looking girl every day and say something kind to her (NOT about her appearance).’”

Now you’re being mendacious. Why did you conveniently leave out the fact that those were recommendations I was considering for my daughter. It seems that someone like you, such an expert at what people can and can’t do, would know that you can’t tell me about projects I’m allowed to consider for my daughter. Where’s the problem with my daughter writing poems and planting trees? Are you trying to imply that taking pictures of yourself and posting them on social media every single day, day in and day out, is somehow superior to writing poetry? That’s your right. But we should really stick to parenting our own kids. 

“After attributing faulty reasoning to the project in which I am partaking (which you do not get to do), you further do not get to tell me that projects that you deem more important than physical beauty are better for my feminism.”

Right, again. However, may I decide which projects are more important for my daughter? Can you grant me that favor? I just don’t think that taking a picture of herself every day for a year—pictures that, no matter how unconvincingly you claim are not about appearance because, guess what, pictures are, after all, PICTURES—is the best thing for my 9-year-old daughter. Again, is it okay with you if I write about decisions I’m making about my parenting on my blog? I sure hope so because I’ve been doing it for about 6 years and I’ve had my share of success.

“And seriously, I dare you to go find a ‘sad-looking’ girl and say something ‘kind’ to her. You don't get to tell girls to cheer up. Neither do I. People, anyone, right now, should not be imposing their opinions on what ‘sad’ is on poor random girls who are probably not even sad anyway. Talk about your narcissism. What makes you think anything a random person has to say to a woman he is guessing is sad would make any difference to her? You're not talking about a tangible thing here, like, someone is struggling with the groceries so you help them out, or someone's got a flat tire, so you lend them a jack. You're talking about an intangible assessment of a stranger's mental well-being.” 

This is an argument against kindness and I’m not convinced. Your leap from the act, being kind, to the result, cheering up, is sloppy. I’m going to continue to teach my daughter to be kind and you, of course, as you know so well and trumpet, have every right in the world to teach your kids to be unkind.

“Which basically sums up your whole piece in a microcosm example.”

You brag below about being a scholar so I’m just going to let your scholarly summary stand on its own.

“Other insulting things you have said include this gem: ‘I see your need to redefine beauty and raise you one need to question the female defined by her appearance. Women can be more than how they look and deserve to be. Step away from the cameras. Seek new ways to appear. As you explore new adjectives through which to be defined, you will emerge as more complicated nouns than pretty ones. This is perhaps the direction toward a feminism beyond beauty.’

I pretty much can't even stand you right now, so I'm going to hand this one off to Raeven Zayas, a woman in my closed FB group for the #365feministselfie project. (It's closed, you see, because it's not for you, or the public, or anyone. It is for us.)

Rae aptly points out your weak attempt at generalizing to an entire population with your sample set of, um, two. Here's a huge clue for you, Jon, women are not the same. We are not a neatly categorizable group. I am sorry for your loss.”

Just making sure that you and Rae know that “women” is a word that includes more than 3 billion separate, distinct, and individual women. We use words like that to avoid articulating more than 3 billion distinctions because we have limits on word count. However, a generalizing word doesn’t negate the distinctions that the word conceals; they’re implied. It’s a language issue. But you know this already. You’re a scholar.

“Okay, she says, 

‘Never mind that some of us are in Grad school, and some of us are parents, and some of us are both, and some of us are neither, and some of us have fancy jobs, and some of us are tough as nails, and some of us could get a blood stain out of a white satin wedding dress, and some of us can train a horse, and some of us have survived cancer, and some of us use our pasts and our traumas to help each other, and some of us can push a baby out of us under the water at our house with no pain medication, and some of us have awesome dreads, and some of us do amazing makeup, and some of us can make a giant cake with a Magic Mike style dancer that pops out of it, and some of us are recovering addicts, and some of us have made a huge connection to other women through this project that has indeed been empowering, and some of us have realized that perhaps we aren't alone in our own insecurities, and some of us have helped one another embrace and love those insecurities, and some of us have learned beautiful things about each other that do not, in fact, have much to do with our physical appearance and our ability to Get a man.’

Oh, did I forget to quote you on that part? Hold on, here it is: ‘What if the seemingly natural, and cunning, desire of women to be physically beautiful — to either be included in the culture’s definition of beauty OR to alter the culture’s definition of beauty to include them — all stemmed from the basic desire to attract (uh-oh) a man?’ 

Yes, we are so cunning. We are so cunning in fact, that we think taking pictures of ourselves will prove to men that there is room for everybody in the Pretty Palace. Also, lesbians don't exist in your world of seemingly academic ponderings. Good to know.”

First, Rae. That’s a big long list of great and wonderful things. But then she clearly states that all those incredible things “do not, in fact, have much do with our physical appearance…” Are you even listening to yourself? Have you forgotten what started this conversation? I was simply questioning, and disagreeing with, the selfie as a radical feminist act, which I have every right to do no matter what you say my rights are, and Rae just confirmed that all the best and greatest things don’t have much to do with physical appearance. That is precisely my argument in a nutshell. That there’s much more to a woman than her physical appearance and a selfie, because it’s a selfie, a picture, an image, reduces a woman to her physical appearance. It can’t avoid the snare of reducing her to her physical appearance because it’s a reproduction of her physical appearance.

Regarding the bit about attracting a man, it appears that both you and Rae attached the adjective “cunning” to “women” when it clearly describes the noun “desire”. Read clearly, it’s still a good question. If women were subject to a cunning desire created and perpetuated by men to enslave women, then altering the definition of beauty would merely be changing the location of your prison. But as always, as you know, you’re welcome to disagree with the things I think and write. Can you do me the same favor?

“Are you even listening to yourself?”

I was just wondering the same thing about you.

“Rae continues:

‘This isn't his movement, it's ours. And if he really wants the truth, I do this for my daughter. All feminism has ever been about for me is my daughter. As a mother who has a little girl that I still get to watch grow up and find her own empowerment and struggle against harsh societal standards of beauty and will spend every day judging herself as harshly as I did about the way she looks, this absofuckinglutely is about my kid. And she will be amazing, and funny, and kind, and intelligent, and generous, and understanding, and compassionate, and driven, and stubborn, and fuck him if he thinks I don't want her to feel beautiful, too.’

And there you have it. Two different women with two different motivations for doing the same project, and both of us feeling empowered because of it.”

What a great democratic society where we get to disagree about the impact of selfies on female oppression. It’s so great for some of you and the last thing in the world I want for my daughter.

“Should we do another one? Let's do another one. This is from Rebecca:

‘For me, taking these pics, and being involved in this project is more about creating a supportive community, one where women can be vulnerable and honest about who they are and their daily lives (struggles and successes). For me, it has very little to do with physical beauty.’

I ask you, dear sir, why does our feeling of empowerment and community force you to action?”

Your feelings didn’t force me into anything; I didn’t even know about you or your feelings until you wrote your reaction to my opinion of 365 feminist selfie. What forced me into action was what I believe to be the faulty idea that taking a picture of herself every day and posting it on social media would make my daughter a feminist. In fact, I still believe that the focus on appearance that the selfie emphasizes is not the best thing for my daughter.

“Don't react with a hasty defense, you said. Think about it, you said.

I did think about it, even though I didn't have to.

Because you do not get to tell me what to do. You do not get to tell me why I do things.

You do not get to tell me what to do.”

That’s well established. Now in italics.

“Also, your scholar jargon makes you sound like a douche. And I'm a scholar, so I know about that one.”

Thank you for your constructive thoughts on my work and your contribution to its wider dissemination.