Author Archives: Maggie Nazer

The exploration begins: first steps alone in Freetown

English below 🙂

Продължавам с още мъничко детайли за Неделята си, която само бегло описах в предишния пост. Сиералеонците, вече съм установила, въобще не признават времето, когато ти кажат, че ще се срещнете “след малко”, това може да бъде от 5 минути до няколко часа. Така половин ден чаках Арнолд уж да дойде да ме вземе за плаж и когато стана около 3 и нещо следобяд, реших, че нямам време за губене- тръгнах сама да обикалям. И понеже мама все ме съветва да не прекалявам със смелостта, реших да се разходя само из квартала. Добре, де, но стигам главния път, вървя мъничко по него и какво да видя: умряло куче по средата на тротоара, ама такова едно от най-страшно изглеждащите: с бяла пяна около устата. Ужасих се, започнах да се оглеждам, но няма връщане назад (пак ще стана за смях), но пък и ме е страх да мина покрай него, да не би само да се прави на умряло. Видя ме едно момче и мина пред мен, и много ми се чуди какво толкова ме е страх.

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Вървя си аз, а хората непрекъснато ми се усмихват, поздравяват ме, честитят ми новата година (аз даже вече забравих, че сме празнували :P). Трябва да призная, че първоначално ме беше малко страх, защото малките улички са толкова бедни и в такъв вид, че да ти настръхне косъма как може да има хора, които да живеят при такива условия. При все това се чувствах много по-комфортно отколкото през по-голяма част от престоя си в Амман, да речем. Няма сексуален тормоз, никой не ходи след теб и не ти досажда.
Бях се запътила към плажа в очакване да разбера колко далеч е сиералеонското “много далече”, когато ми се обади Арнолд, за да ми съобщи, че най-накрая тръгва от тях и че няма да ходим на плаж, а на приятелски футболен мач. Футболът тук е огромна страст и хората не само активно следят всички мачове, но и много често играят. Няколко големи сиералеонски футболни звезди са водещата причина за тази мания; дори и Арнолд, който работи за агенция на ООН ми споделя, че би предпочел да бъде футболист.

img_20170108_1700491Отиваме на националното игрище, което въобще няма вид на такова, но е предоставено на играчите- които поголовно се оказват големи клечки- тъй като техен приятел е министър на спорта. Самият мач на мен не ми беше толкова интересен, колкото това, което последва: първо докараха от някъде тави с пиле и ядохме (Не прави като мен: нямаше вилици и всички мръсни, потни ядоха с ръце. А пък аз се замих с малко минерална вода и реших и аз като тях да ям, но после цяла но
щ ми раздираха котки стомаха). След това се изпи доста Бекс, а когато се стъмни започнаха да се състезават по танцуване: тук всички, ВСИЧКИ танцуват уникално, днес минавах покрай едни бедни къщи, а едно голо дете с радио така се радваше и поклащаше…

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Тоалетната в барчето вместо врата имаше перденце, но при все това никой не те притеснява, докато си вътре

Най-накрая се преместихме в един бар, който представлява една малка стаичка с голи стени, няколко масички и диджей пулт. Обаче и аз се разтанцувах най-накрая, докато не ме държаха краката повече.

Понеделник

На другия ден пак до късно ни вест, ни кост от никого, облякох се и пак излязох сама.  Две пресечки по-късно срещам за втори път едно момче, което отново сърдечно ме поздравява, и този път като вече “познат” го попитах как да стигна до центъра на града. “Къде по-точно?” “Ами,  не знам, в центъра”. Той ми обсяни, че освен с мотоциклет (опасно) или с такси (“скъпо”), мога да се придвижа с автобус или маршрутка, но че те били много наблъскани. “Няма проблем”- казвам аз, винаги готова за приключение и скоро се отзовавам наблъскана в автобус с още 70-80 души при трийсет градусово слънце в два и половина на обяд. На всичкото отгоре- няма такъв трафик! Бога ми, не съм се потила толкова много през целия си живот взет заедно.

IMG_20170109_161759[1].jpgСлед около час в нажежената консерва питам Франсис, който в крайна сметка също се качи на рейса колко още остава, а той засмяно ми обяснява, че никога не си засича времето, така че не може да ми каже. Най-накрая пристигаме, а аз нищо не съм яла и съм мъртво гладна. Оказва се, че Франсис няма намерение да си продължи по пътя, а иска да ме придружи и аз неохотно се съгласявам (всъщност в последствие се оказа, че беше страхотно да се сприятеля с местен и да обикаляме заедно, а Франсис се оказа изключително мил и приятен). Влязохме в едно миниатюрно ресторантче, в което ни предложиха някакво африканско ястие, което не можаха да ми опишат, както и риба. Културният шок бе преди всичко в хигиената или по-скоро тоталната липса на такава- поисках да си измия ръцете, но се оказа, че няма баня и ми донесоха едно миниатюрно легенче, в което да си изплакна ръцете; придружителят ми въобще нямаше такива мераци, при все че ястието, което ни донесоха се яде с ръце. Въпросната риба беше най-тъжната риба, която съм виждала, но какво да правиш- хапнах. За разлика от Арнолд, който ми беше казал, че хората тук не са всъщност бедни и че всички получават по 100-200 долара от роднини в чужбина, Франсис ми каза, че дори и това ресторантче, където платих около 2 долара за яденето ни, би било прекалено скъпо за мнозинството от хора.img_20170109_1617511

С Франсис дълго се разхождахме по улиците и той ми разказва истории и факти за Сиера Леон, както и за себе си. Той бил син на племенен вожд от Севера и въпреки че учи журналистика, голямата му мечта е да влезе в политиката и да създаде нова партия, която да обединява всички сиералеонци, а не да дискриминира определени племена или групи. Понастоящем подобно на САЩ в Сиера Леоне има две управляващи партии, а достъп до най-висшестоящите позиции имат само членове на определени етнически/племенни групи.

Следвайте постовете ми за още истории и впечатления от престоя ми в Сиера Леоне. Възможността да пътувам до едни от най-невероятните кътчета на света и да общувам с хора от целия свят до голяма степен се дължи на това, че знам и свободно говоря на няколко езици. Ако искате да подобрите уменията си по Английски по най-ефективния и бърз начин в интернационална среда с нейтив спийкърс, непременно разгледайте сайтът на новия ми проект: Immersion Language & Leadership Academy

 

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I’m continuing with yet some more about my first Sunday in Sierra Leone (2nd day), which I only briefly described in my previous post. Siera Leoneans- I quickly found out- are not very punctual, so when they tell you they will meet you “in a bit” that could take anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours. I waited for Arnold for half a day before at around 3.30pm I decided I have no time to waste and left the house to walk around by myself. My mom always warns me to not go too far with my bravery, so I decided to only explore the neighborhood since transportation seemed too complicated anyway. Okey, but as soon as I reach the main road and walk on it for a bit I am thrown off by the scariest sight: a dead dog lying in the middle of the path with white around its mouth. I was terrified, but there was no going back- people will laugh at me!- and yet I don’t dare to keep walking (what if it’s not really dead, but only wants me to think so?!) At the end a boy walked in front of me and couldn’t understand why I’m so scared…

I’m walking down the street and people are smiling at me, greeting me, saying “Happy New Year!” (I already forgot we recently celebrated :P). At first I was a bit afraid because some of the little streets are so poor, I can’t but wonder how people can live in such conditions. And yet I felt more comfortable than during most of my stay in, say, Amman: no sexual harassment, no one walks behind you or bothers you.

I was heading towards the beach curious to find out how far is the Sierraleonean “really far”, when Arnold cold me to let me know he’s finally leaving his home and that instead of going to the beach we’ll go to a football match his friends organized. Football is a huge passion here and people not only follow actively all games, but also play frequently (no wonder everyone is so fit and good-looking). Several big Sierraleonean football starts are the reason for this craze; even Arnold who wors for a UN agency tells me he would rather be a football player.

img_20170108_1700491Arnold’s friends- all big fish in Sierra Leone- are given access to the National Stadium (which hardly looks like one) because a friend of theirs holds an important position with the Sport Ministry. I wasn’t that interested with the game, but loved what followed: first, after the match people brought from somewhere several giant plates with chicken (Don’t do what I did: there were no forks and everyone, dirty and sweaty after the game, ate with bare hands; I tried to wash my hands with some mineral water, but nevertheless followed my travelling mantra “When in Rome, do as Romans do”, but then cats were scratching my stomach all night long!) People drank a lot of Becks afterwards, and when darkness had fallen the dance competitions began: EVERYONE here is amazing at dancing (I was passing by some poor houses today and I saw a naked child holding a radio and dancing so, so happily, it was pure joy to watch him).

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The bathroom in the bar had no door and yet no one would bother you, while you’re inside

At last, we moved on to a bar which was nothing more than a small room with bare walls, a few tables and a DJ. The atmosphere was so enthralling, I got up to dance and didn’t stop until my legs couldn’t stand…

 

Monday

I didn’t hear from anyone until late the next day again, so I once more dressed up and went out by myself. Just around the corner I meet the same guy I had met the previous day, we chat a bit and this time (now that he is no loner a stranger) I ask him how to get to the city center. “Where exactly?” “I don’t know- in the city center”. He explains to me that there are several modes of transportation: I can go by motorcycle (“dangerous”), taxi (“expensive”) or by a public bus or shuttle, but these are “so very congested”. “No problem”, I say (“When in Rome…”, remember?) and I soon find myself on a bus with 70-80 more people at 2.30 pm in the worst of heat (it was 30+ degrees Celsius). On top of everything: tons of traffic and we’re hardly moving. I haven’t sweated so much in my whole life altogether.

img_20170109_1617591An hour later, jammed in the hot tin, I ask Francis who has also got on the bus to tell me how much more is left and he laughingly replies that he never times the trip, so he can’t tell. At last, we arrive to Regents Road in the midst of some of the largest crowds I’ve seen. It turns out Francis isn’t planning on departing and I reluctantly agree that he accompanies me (turned out he was incredibly kind and respectful and I was really happy to have made another local friend). I was really hungry, so we entered a tiny restaurant where we were offered an African dish no one could describe to me, as well as fish. The cultural shock came from the hygiene- or rather lack of such- I asked tow ash my hands, but it turned out there was no bathroom, so I was brought a tiny water basin to wash my hands in; my companion made no such request, yet the dish we were to eat is consumed by hand. The fish we got was the saddest fish I have seen, but hunger had its word, so I ate some. In contrast to Arnold who had told me that most people aren’t actually poor and receive 100-200$ by relatives abroad every month, Francis told me that most people can’t even afford our shared 2$ meal.

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We then walked for long and he told me many stories and fact about Sierra Leone, as well as about himself. He said he was the son of a Tribal Chief from the North and that although he studied Journalism, he really wanted to go into politics and create a new party which will bring together all groups and tribes in the country, and not discriminate against some. Currently, Sierra Leone has two ruling parties with access to the highest political offices granted to only members of few tribes/ethnic groups.

Follow my posts for more stories and observations from Sierra Leone🙂

 

 


Little, Big Things (Day 2 in Sierra Leone)

English Below🙂15970280_10211556745265251_1052737214_n

Спане

Първата нощ, без да знам, че трябва да се изпъне мрежата за комарите, и изтощена от дългото пътуване се бях завила с нея като с одеало. На следващия ден май ме бяха усетили и като се прибрах, мрежата беше здраво изпъната, а аз се засрамих, че не ми беше хрумнало. (И в Тайланд съм спала с комарник, но там беше различно.)

Комари

От колежа ми ми предписаха и купиха Маларон за защита срещу малария (въпреки че предпазвал само в около 75% от случаите и имал много лоши старнични ефекти). В Сиера Леоне маларията е най-разпространена през дъждовния сезон юни-август, а през Януари няма толкова комари, което обаче не означава, че не може да се заразиш. При все това на мен ми се искаше да избегна маларона и реших да не почвам да го пия преди да ми стъпи крака тук и сама да видя как стоят нещата. С мрежа или не получих няколко ухапвания още от първата вечер и след като прогресивно ме завладя параноя, на втория ден реших, че ще се надявам на най-доброто и яе започна послушно да пия антималарийните лекарства.

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Сим Карта

Колегата ми Арнолд ми донесе СИМ карта, но след като се оказа, че телефонът ми работи само с мини такава, въпросът беше набързо разрешен с помощта на най-обикновени ножици. За момента обаче все още не мога да звъня, тъй като явно трябва да ида някъде и да регистрирам номера с паспорта си.

15871880_10211571115464497_5374948146352636405_nПари

След като обмених пари се почувствах като милионер: никога не бях държала повече пачки с банкноти, но разбира се- за жалост!- стойността им хич не е висока. Пет хиляди леона се равняват на по-малко от 1 долар (който върви за около 7,500 леона, ако имаш късмет и според това какви банкноти обменяш- така, например, се оказа, че най-ценени са банкнотите от 50 и 100 долара, по-дребните се обменят на безценица).

15965986_10211571107664302_3535818377553219637_nКъпане

Както вече писах в предишния си пост, бях изненадана, че имаме баня с течаща вода в къщата, по-друго си го бях представяла. Като се събудих след първите няколко часа сън след пристигането ми, бях толкова потна и преоплена, че страхът от студената вода се изпари. Процедурата по къпането не е сложна, но е странна за повечето от нас, които сме свикнали, всичкото усилие, полагано за къпането, да се изчерпва с едното пускане на душа. Тук наливаш водата на тънка струя в кофа, започваш бавно да се обливаш, търкаш, пак наливаш и повтаряш много пъти… Разбира се, трябва да съм благодарна, че не се налага да се носи водата от кладенец- нещо, което е реалност за голяма част от хората в Африка. В тази връзка преди година взимах клас на тема глобални здравни практики и вместо поредния изпит преподавателката ни ни беше поставила предизвикателство: цяла седмица да разполагаме само с по 10 литра на ден, които сами да пренасяме от фитнес центъра (на края на кампуса) и която трябваше да ни стигне за пиене, къпане, миене на зъби, пускане на вода в тоалетната (за което се изхабяват около 2л. вода при всяко пускане!). Всеки ден трябваше да си водим бележки и да размишляваме върху преживяването, което беше доста нелеко, времеемко и изтощително. невероятно е да си дадеш сметка колко мнгоо време и усилие ни спестяват неща, които дотолкова считаме за даденост.

Следвайте постовете ми за още истории и впечатления от престоя ми в Сиера Леоне. Възможността да пътувам до едни от най-невероятните кътчета на света и да общувам с хора от целия свят до голяма степен се дължи на това, че знам и свободно говоря на няколко езици. Ако искате да подобрите уменията си по Английски по най-ефективния и бърз начин в интернационална среда с нейтив спийкърс, непременно разгледайте сайтът на новия ми проект: Immersion Language & Leadership Academy


15970280_10211556745265251_1052737214_nSleeping

Not knowing that the mosquito net should be stretched well before you crawl under it, I spent the first night sleeping covered with it as if it were a blanket. My housemates must have figured out what had happened, so when I came back the mosquito net was spread as it should be and I felt a bit silly for not figuring it out by myself.

Mosquitos

Back at Middlebury the Health Center prescribed and bought Malarone (antimalarial drug) for me to use while I’m here. Learning about the many side effects of the drug, as well as its only partial protection (it works in only 75% of the cases), I decided to first set foot in SL and then figure out the mosquito situation. Even with a mosquito net, however, I got a few bites on the very first day and started getting paranoid. In Sierra leone malaria is most prevalent during the rainy season in June- August, yet infection can occur throughout the year. At last, I decided to hope for the best (that is few and weak side effects) and began taking malarone.

15941988_10211556743905217_1301865972_nSIM card

My colleague Arnold brought me a SIM card, but it turned out it was too big for my phone which only supports mini sim card. The popular solution turned out to be quite simple: just take some scissors and cut the sim card in the size you need!

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After exchanging money I briefly felt like a millionaire: I had never held so much money in my hands! Sadly, their value isn’t that high, with 7.500 Leons equal to just a dollar. Interestingly, not all money are created equal: in Sierra Leone $50 and $100 bills are valued more and exchanged at higher rates than $10 and $20 bills.

15965986_10211571107664302_3535818377553219637_nBathing

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was surprised that we have a bathroom with running water in the house, my imagination had painted a different picture. When I woke up after several hours of sleep since my arrival, I was so warm and sweaty, my fear from the cold water evaporated. The bathing procedure isn’t complicated, but it’s pretty weird for those of us used to not having to put any effort into it, other than turning on the shower. Here, you begin by pouring the water on a —- in a big basket, then pouring it over yourself, and repeating this many times before you decide you are good to go. Of course, I’m quite grateful that we don’t have to bring the water from a well somewhere afar- as is the case with many poor people in Africa. My bathing experience here reminded me of a challenge my Global Health professor at Middlebury had given us instead of yet another exam. For a week those of us who accepted the challenge, could use only 10 liters of water per day to bathe, brush teeth, drink and flush the toilet (one flushing alone is equal to 2 liters of water wasted!). Moreover, we had to daily bring the water from the Middlebury fitness center (located across the campus).   Every day we had to take notes and reflect on this time-consuming and exhausting experience. Its incredible to realize how much time and effort the things we take for granted save us.

Follow my posts for more stories and observations from Sierra Leone🙂


First impressions from Sierra Leone

English below!🙂

След дълги часове прекарани в чакане и път най-накрая се отзовах на летището Лунги в Сиера Леоне. Бързо си взех багажа и не след дълго ме заобиколиха група мъже, предлагащи ми най-учтиво различни възможности за превоз до Фрийтаун, столицата на Сиера Леоне. Мястото, където се намира летището е отделено от Фрийтаун със залив.

seabirdЧернор Бах- приятел от Сиера Леоне, който работи за съвета на населението към ООН (the UN Population Council)- ми беше дал инструкции, които аз очевидно съм запомнила погрешно, тъй като в последствие се оказа, че съм се качила на погрешното корабче. Още от първия момент започнах да се сблъсквам както с реалността, така и със своите погрешни представи за нея, изградени в следствие на прочетеното и чутото за държавата. Така например след като минахме покрай върволица от къщи подобни на бараки, пристигнахме на кея, където ни чакаше Sea Bird корабчето, което даже предлагаше wi-fi! 

15970440_10211556752185424_530876582_nПо време на 20-минутното пътуване се заговорих с един италианец, който се оказа, че работи за делегацията на ЕС в Сиера Леоне. Набързо обсъдихме основните ми тревоги: как да се предпазиш от малария, има ли змии и каква храна могат да понесат изнежените ни европейски стомаси. Направи ми впечатление, че хората са изключително добре организирани до степен каквато не съм виждала нито в България, нито в САЩ, при това без да са стресирани или докачливи: продажбата на билети, поставяне на тагове на багажите, превоза ни с автобусче до корабчето и после разпределянето на багажите беше изпълнено с невероятна бързина и прецизност. С италианеца разменихме контакти, тъй като се оказа, че доскоро работата му е била с джендър въпросите в страната и чакахме заедно известно време, докато дойдат да ни вземат.  Когато най-накрая дойде моят местен колега Арнолд да ме вземе се оказа, че ме е чакал на мястото, където спирало другото корабче. Той самият бил по дискотеки цяла вечер, за да не пропусне да се събуди и да ме посрещне- както скоро след това установих сиералеонците знаят как да се забавляват и го правят в големи количества и без повод.

Пристигнах в къщата, в която ще нощувам в следващите пет седмици и бях посрещната от хоста ми, който е от Бангладеш и работи в интернационално НПО, както и неговия местен слуга (това ми е много ново и донякъде трудно за възприемане), който аз първоначално си мислих, че е просто друг наемател. Имах желанието да се изкъпя, но при все че бях впечатлена, че има вътрешна баня с течаща вода (не си го бях представяла така), не можах да се реша да се полея със студена вода. (На сутринта вече нямаше как, но затова в следващия пост!)

img_20100101_021456След много сън и разговори с хоста ми и негови приятели, които дойдоха за обяд и ме учиха как да ям с ръце по бангладешки, Арнолд дойде да ме вземе, обмених пари и отидохме да вечеряме. След това се разхождахме дълго по една крайбрежна алея, а Арнолд започна да ме учи на креоле- местният диалект, който реално представлява развален Английски и е бил езика на африканските роби, които са слушали своите англоговорящи господари и са използвали езика, без да могат да изговарят определени звуци. Така например знакът на снимката в превод на английски казва: “Let’s keep the beach clean all the time” (“Да пазим плажа чист през цялото време”). Очевидно не е много трудно да научиш креоле или поне да започнеш да го разбираш.

 

Следвайте постовете ми за още истории и впечатления от престоя ми в Сиера Леоне. Възможността да пътувам до едни от най-невероятните кътчета на света и да общувам с хора от целия свят до голяма степен се дължи на това, че знам и свободно говоря на няколко езици. Ако искате да подобрите уменията си по Английски по най-ефективния и бърз начин в интернационална среда с нейтив спийкърс, непременно разгледайте сайтът на новия ми проект: Immersion Language & Leadership Academy

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After many hours spent in waiting and travelling, I finally arrived at the Lunghi airport in Sierra Leone- the location of my 5-week research and field work focused on women and adolescent girl empowerment. I quickly picked up my luggage and a group of men surrounded me politely offering various modes of transportation to Freetown (the capital of SL).

seabirdChernor Bah- a friend working at the Population Council and a native of Sierra Leone- had given me instructions as to which boat to get on. Yet, it later turned out I had forgotten his advice and gotten on the wrong boat. (I’m an old believer in the saying that everything happens for a reason, though!) From the first moment I began facing the reality of life in Sierra Leone, as well as my skewed perceptions of it, based on what I had heard and read about the country. After passing by some of the poorest houses/barracks I have seen, we got on the Sea Bird boat which was quite fancy and even offered wi-fi!

15970440_10211556752185424_530876582_nDuring the quick 20-min trip through the bay separating the airport area from Freetown, I made friends with an Italian guy who works for the EU delegation in Sierra Leone. He kindly addressed my main concerns: how to not get malaria, are there snakes and what food would not upset our tender European stomachs. I noticed that people were organized to an extent I’ve never observed in neither Bulgaria, nor the US: the ticket sale, tagging and transportation of luggage, bus trip to the boat and return of our luggage were done with amazing efficiency and speed and no evident stress. The Italian and I exchanged contacts as it turned out he has been working on gender in the country until recently and waited until we got picked up. When my local colleague Arnold came to pick me up, it turned out he has been waiting at a different location where the boat I was supposed to get on disembarks. Afraid to not miss waking up on time, he had spent the night out partying which as I later found out is widespread among Sieraleoneans who love having fun and do it in big quantities and without a reason.

I finally arrived in the house where I’ll be staying in the next 5 weeks and I was warmly welcomed by my host who is Bangladeshi and works for an international NGO, as well as his local servant (something which is pretty new to me, but apparently is quite common here, with many middle class locals having servants). I wanted to shower, but although I was nicely surprised that there is an indoor bathroom with running water (which is not how I imagined it), I couldn’t get myself to shower with cold water. (I had to as soon as next morning, but read my next post for more info).

img_20100101_021456After much sleep and conversations with my host and his friends who are also development workers and who taught me how to eat with hands Bangladeshi-style, Arnold came to pick me up, I exchanged money and we went to have dinner. Afterwards we walked along a beach pathway and Arnold began teaching me Kreo- the local dialect which, according to Arnold, the African slaves came up with as they heard their masters speak in English. Unable to pronounce all sounds,  the slaved used a simplified version of English. The sign on the picture, for example, says “Let us keep the beach clean all the time”. Apparently it’s not too difficult to learn Kreo or at least begin to understand it.

 

Follow my posts for more stories and observations from Sierra Leone🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Manufacturing Female Anxiety

mirror+mirror+on+the+wallI am 22 years old. I weight 52 kilograms. My height is 164cm (I’d like to think of myself as “petite”, although I’m perhaps too tall for it). I do think of myself as attractive. The size of my breasts is not ideal, but I’ve long ago come to terms with it. Of course, every once in a while I think of myself of a bit “chubby”, but I have never went out of my way to pursue thinness… The one major thing I have always disliked about myself is the gap between my front teeth. This is why my teeth never show up on photographs. I never managed to get myself braces and I’m probably too old for it now. Yet, as my mom happily noted: “There are many gap toothed models these days…” This should put my discomfort to rest.

Don’t let this confession give you a wrong impression: I like my body. Yet, every time I walk nearby a surface I see my reflection in, this inevitably produces a reaction and not a neutral one. No matter how well-looking I perceive myself to be, I still want to be a tiny bit better: “Goodbye, cellulite: Hello, perfection!”, as advertisements tell us. Thinking about my own experience as an “embodied Self” and as a woman, I am suddenly forced to ask: “How come anxiety regarding body image has become so naturalized, it does not even present itself as an issue? Where does it stem from?” In trying to answer these questions, I will look at a variety of contemporary feminist texts identifying the processes through which female body image anxiety is “manufactured”.

women-think-they-are-fatIn her book “The Body Project: an Intimate History of American Girls” Joan Brumberg uncovers a troubling phenomenon: since the twentieth century “the body has become the central personal project of American girls” (Brumberg, 1997, p. 91), yet this hasn’t always been the case[1]. While girls today reach sexual maturation earlier than females from previous historical periods, their transition to womanhood is much more difficult because of a mismatch between biology and culture which leaves them particularly vulnerable to influences by peer pressure and mainstream culture (Brumberg, 1997).

In contrasting 20th century American girls to their Victorian counterparts, Brumberg highlights the importance of historic contexts in shaping young female’s attitudes towards their bodies: “Every girl suffers some kind of adolescent angst about her body; it is the historical moment that defines how she reacts to her changing flesh” (Brumberg, 1997, p. xviii). The extent to which females tend to their looks is presupposed by the cultural expectations and norms of the time they live in: in their personal diaries nineteen-century girls write about striving to improve their character and behavior, while a century later American girls predominantly focus on managing their appearance. Looks beat character over one’s sense and expression of identity.

Historical context as an origin of female anxiety over body image can be traced to particular innovations which the 19th century gave rise to. The quest for slimming, one of the major ways in which female (but not only!) anxiety over physical appearance manifests, began in the 1920s, after Parisian designer Paul Poiret introduced a silhouette which uncovered the legs and created a new female figure ideal: one that was “slender, long-limbed and relatively flat-chested” (Brumberg, 1997, p.99). Another historical predisposition for the newly developed “weight-awareness” among women was the discovery of the calorie. The changing notions of what the female figure should look like drastically transformed the understandings of the body, whereby image became the site of identity: it turned into “a way to visibly announce who you are to the world” (Brumberg, 1997, p.97).

While young females are particularly vulnerable to fixation on their physical appearance, women of all ages are affected by dominant expectations for beauty and fitness. Despite the fact that women who undergo plastic surgery or develop eating disorders due to self-starvation are seen as deviants, scholars have argued that they only represent one extreme on a continuum “which all women today find themselves, insofar as they are vulnerable, to one degree or another, to the requirements of the cultural construction of femininity” (Bordo, 1993, p. 47).

Popular culture, feminists insist, is where female anxiety is manufactured and capitalized on.  Magazines, advertisements, mainstream music and TV are among the instruments used to produce and perpetuate the often unrealistic norms women internalize and embody. Labiaplasty, a plastic surgery procedure involving cutting off labial tissue of “labia, that have been deemed excessively droopy” (Davis, 2002, p.302), constitutes a rather shocking example of this process.

In her article “Loose Lips Sink Ships” Simone Davis demonstrates how advertisers capitalize on expectations created by widespread access to porn, as well as preexisting shame surrounding the vagina to escalate women’s unease with their body parts or- if missing- create it: “Before people will spend money on something as expensive as plastic surgery, they need to be motivated not only by desire but by concern or self-doubt” (Davis, 2002, p. 304). The breeding of inferiority complexes is intentional and highly profitable, yet the manipulative nature of this process gets obscured by the idea of “free choice”. Comparing labiaplasties to African genital mutilation practices, Davis suggests that the two closely resemble each other because both produce consent through cultural coercion (Davis, 2002).

In the case of eating disorders such as bulimia or anorexia nervosa, the role of the sociocultural environment in producing “disability” is similarly concealed: medicalized and defined as psychopathology, these conditions are portrayed as failings of the individuals who must suffer from lack of self-esteem, perceptual malfunction or otherwise distorted reasoning. Yet, feminists challenge the disability politics revolving around eating disorders: if 75% of the 33,000 women surveyed by Glamour magazine in 1984 regarded themselves “too fat” (Bordo, 1993), did they all suffer from distorted perception or is there something else to blame? Proponents of anorexia and bulimia as “disorders” commonly remind that not all women, but only some develop an eating condition, thereby claiming that the reason for this is to be found in their individual predisposition to psychological and physiological disability (Bordo, 1993). But while “reaching epidemic proportions today” (Bordo, 1993, p. 139), a century ago eating disorders were distinctly rare. To that end, feminist scholar Suzan Bordo claims that culture is not merely a contributing factor to the manufacturing of female anxiety over the body, but its main producer (Bordo, 1993).

“Rigorous dieting”, “excessive jogging” and other forms of exercise of control over the body may not have as staggering effects as the development of bulimia or anorexia, yet they are similarly fueled by the messages of a culture that has “taught women to be insecure bodies, constantly monitoring themselves for signs of imperfection, constantly engaged in physical ‘improvement’ (…)” (Bordo, 1993, p. 57). The medicalization of eating conditions obscures how common body shame and hatred are in contemporary society, as well as how valid anorectics’ presumed “flawed reasoning” that slimness will have them be perceived as “better” or “smarter” is given the predominant association of positive qualities with slenderness (Bordo, 1993).

Realizing the all-permeating nature of the forces which lead to the manufacturing of female anxiety could be disempowering. After all who we are (or aren’t) is largely defined by the specific sociocultural and historical context we were born and live in. To live with and “nurture” the complexes others have created for us, however, becomes a choice once are made aware of it. Yet, the choice presupposes its answer unless radical cultural transformations are made- rejecting sociocultural norms of beauty and fitness cannot be inconsequential, for this is how the system perpetuates itself.

References:

  • Brumberg, J. J. (1997). The body project: An intimate history of american girls. New York: Random House.
  • Davis, S. W.. (2002). Loose Lips Sink Ships. Feminist Studies28(1), 7–35. http://doi.org/10.2307/3178492
  • Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1] While Brumberg’s work primarily focuses on American females, the descriptions of their preoccupation with body image could perhaps be extended to girls and women from other Western, industrialized countries, as well.


Desire and Pleasure of the (Un)Sexed Body

mare_Dark_Chocolate_Dipped_Cherry_Ice_Cream_Cones_01_v-225x300

The “sexing” of bodies is inevitably a social process whereby certain bodies are categorized as pertaining to men, while others- to women. The “in-between” remains invisible, concealed by the widely-accepted notion that there are only two “regular” ways of existing:  either being male, or female. Within this context, social power dictates not only the assignment to sex, but also an accompanying gender and with that a whole series of roles, expectations, preferences and life choices one is pressured to adopt in order to “fit”. While concepts such as “desire” and “pleasure” and their resulting behaviors and actions may rather be seen as a concern of  the individual’s “psychology”, social power circulating around both the sexed body and its sexually unclear counterpart dictates the characteristics of desire and pleasure and their respective perception as either “deviant” or “normal”. Within this paper I will explore how the subject of pleasure and desire is construed historically in relation to sex and gender. Simultaneously, I will focus on the ideas and narratives pertaining to sexual “appetite” and “enjoyment” situating them in the sociohistorical context that made them possible.

To begin with, it is important to outline briefly how the social “sexing” of the body occurs and perpetuates itself. In “Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality” Anne Fausto-Sterling unequivocally claims that “labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision”[1]. This decision may be presented as grounded in science, yet the production of scientific knowledge itself is not unaffected by existing beliefs about gender. Indeed, throughout “Brainstorm: The flaws in the science of sex differences” Rebecca Jordan-Young demonstrates how research of sex differences and particularly “Brain Organization Theory” (the theory presupposing the existence of “female” and “male” brains, differentiated to serve complementary roles within the process of reproduction) has been flawed by unchallenged “commonsense” assumptions and neglect towards historical and cultural shifts in understanding of gender, in addition to lack of reliable data due to the quasi-experimental design of most studies [2].

Instead of being all about hormones and biologically-determined processes as researchers would have liked us to have it, sex (meant as a category) is invariably dependent on definitions and as such is largely human-made. This point is all the more important in dealing with intersex babies whose genitalia is not fully developed until puberty, yet which begins to be inspected and assessed from birth. This practice creates the risk that “doctors may remove a small penis at birth and create a girl child, even though the penis may have grown to “normal” size in puberty”[3].

Moreover, to account for the importance of socialization, Fausto-Sterling draws on stories about children, raised away from society, in the absence of other humans’ presence. These children, as she describes, do not develop sexuality because while they have the “raw material” for reproduction, they have not learned the set of meanings that predispose desire and give one “consciousness” of her “bodily functions”[4]. For sexuality to be even possible, it is not merely enough to have a certain set of genitals.

In attempting to answer the question “Who is the subject of desire and pleasure in the context of gender and sex historically?” I first need to identify the existing possibilities. Once a baby is born (that is in most of the Modern World), it is assigned into one of three categories: “girl”, “boy” or more rarely: “intersex”. Yet in most cases the “intersex” child is not allowed to exist as “ambiguous” for very long. Its “ambiguousness” is accompanied by so strong a drive to include it in either of the two “normal” categories that numerous irreversible surgeries and loss of much sensitive tissue become justified. In many cases, surgical “fixing” is guided by social, instead of medical needs: “whether it ‘looks right’ to other boys, whether it can ‘perform satisfactorily’ in intercourse”[5] ends up being more important than the penis’ function for its owner’s physical wellbeing.

I will claim then that the intersex child born with sexually unclear genitalia is altogether denied pleasure and desire. It will either be “fixed” and, theoretically, “find belonging” to either the “male” or “female” cohort of its peers, or “live always as a sexual freak in loneliness and frustration”[6], the last exemplifying the “rhetoric of tragedy” construed by parents and medical personnel, alike.

As a general “rule”, if a baby is born with a vagina or “fixed” into having one, it would, “naturally”, be assumed to develop as heterosexual and to be female-presenting. In regards to desire, late into twentieth century the grown-up woman was expected to develop a “feminine” sexuality, understood as passive (“in the absence of a partner, a ‘normal’ woman waits”[7]), sentimental and romantic longing. The “feminine” woman deemed “normal”, as interpreted by the infamous Brain Organization Theory pioneer John Money and his colleagues, would not enjoy various sex positions, would not experience erotic response to anything else, but kissing and touching, and would primarily find interest in marriage and motherhood.

Historically, the understanding of “female” sexuality underwent great transformations. In Renaissance Europe women were perceived as sexual insatiable-s, while men were thought to be more successful at restraining their urges due to their inherently greater rationality[8]. Men who “slept around” were seen as “de-masculinized” since they failed to enact the expected manly self-control. Yet, this paradigm shifted drastically in the centuries to follow and led to the advent of the Victorian ideal for a “lady”, whereby females were expected to erase their sexuality in order to gain status and respect.  Sadly, while social and political movements in the 1960s were disrupting traditional ideas about sexuality and “a revolution in birth control and the legalization of abortion increasingly separated sexuality from reproduction”[9], it wasn’t before 1980 that brain research on sexual differences began to adopt a model of female sexuality that didn’t follow the Victorian model which portrayed it as “romantic, receptive, slow to waken and only weakly physical[10]”.

The underlying assumptions in this gendered profile began to be addressed in the 1980s when a more “egalitarian” understanding of female sexuality began to emerge. Or rather, elements of “masculine” sexuality were neutralized and become “common” for both “male” and “female” sexuality.  Upon this radical cultural and scientific shift women’s sexual desire expanded to include masturbation, genital arousal (which before was considered to only pertain to men), sexual arousal, high libido, frequent sexual activity and multiple partners, to name a few[11].

In fact, sexual pleasure had a lot to do with the stereotypical depiction of women as “passive” and “passionless” which still circulates mainstream culture (and science). In “Making Sex” Thomas Laquer explains how Orgasm was used in the creation of a sharp distinction between women and men “sometime in the eighteenth century” when “sex as we know it was invented”[12]. Prior to that, sex was understood through the “one sex” model, whereby females were seen as underdeveloped males, whose genitalia were the same as men’s, yet turned on the inside[13]. Within the “female-as-male” model men and women possessed identical physiological functions. Female orgasm constituted a mandatory element in the process of reproduction. The idea that a woman would not get impregnated unless she reached orgasm was accepted as “commonsense” late into the 1800s, yet evidence was building up to demonstrate that female orgasm had little role in conception. In 1770s experimenter Lazzaro Spallanzani succeeded to artificially inseminate a water spaniel and in 1879 Mabel Loomis Todd tested her hypothesis that she would not get pregnant if her husband ejaculated inside of her after she had orgasmed, only to give birth nine months later[14].

Following this discovery and as the “two sex” model emerged, the woman’s ability to receive sexual pleasure was altogether contested. The rejection of female orgasm as unlikely served to further differentiate the sexes and justify the obsoletion of the “one sex” paradigm. According to Laquer this had at least two important dimensions: firstly, while earlier it was thought that both the man and the woman needed to orgasm/ejaculate for a baby to be “made”, with the discovery that female orgasm was not instrumental for conception, men were elevated to “creators” while women began to be seen as a mere physical “container” for reproduction (“the material cause is inferior to the efficient cause”[15]). As the Bible reads: “For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man” (Corinthians 11:8, English Standard Version). Women’s seemingly inferior contribution to reproduction justified their subordinate position in society. Secondly, the revelation of female sexual pleasure as “unrelated” to conception soon translated into larger claims about “most women’s” lack of sexual “feelings” which in turn led to the identification of a variety of characteristics now perceived as a “sign of gender”.

As evident, “Female” pleasure and desire have been the concerns of inexhaustible controversy within the scientific community and outside of it for centuries. For most of history, women have not been seen as “subjects” of desire and pleasure, but rather- “objects” of male desire, in service of male pleasure.  The male “subject’’ is the assumed subject. In choosing to limit my analyses to only “sexually unclear” and “female-sexed” bodies and their interactions with desire and pleasure, I not only exercise my feminist right to “reverse” privilege and attend to those, who have traditionally been either omitted from or exploited by scientific research, but also have a theoretical justification. For once, in describing ideas and narratives related to female sexual pleasure and desire, I am (inevitably) simultaneously, if not directly, presenting ideas and narratives about “male” sexuality since the two were most often than not seen as contradicting. The man is what the woman isn’t: “Masculine and feminine sexuality could be represented as not just distinct, but polar opposites”[16] in the view of early Brain Organization theorists and many more, even today.  We can only hope they don’t remain a majority.

 

Bibliography

  • Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 58
  • Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

 

[1] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 3.

[2] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 58.

 

[4] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. Page 23.

[5] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 58

[6] Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. P. 47

[7] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 116.

[8] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 110.

[9] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 112.

[10] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 113.

[11] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pages 138-141.

[12] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 149.

[13] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 4.

[14] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 181.

[15] Laqueur, T. W. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 151.

[16] Jordan-Young, R. M. (2010). Brain storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Page 118.


A Bulgarian “Guyland”

This is an academic research paper written for my class “Sociology of Gender” at Middlebury College. If you have any feedback, please, use the comments section under the article! Happy reading! M.

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From a sociological perspective masculinity is everything but “innate” and “ahistorical”. The definition of “manhood” is socially constructed by culture. In the words of sociologist Michael Kimmel, masculinity is “a constantly changing collection of meanings that we construct through our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the world” (Kimmel, 2000, p. 58). “Hegemonic masculinity” characterizes normative masculinity in opposition to sexual and racial minorities and particularly- women (Kimmel, 2000, p. 58). Its construction and enactment are grounded in the patriarchal social order and its resulting mechanisms, ideology and self-perpetuating tools. The acquisition of power, seen as a natural consequence of being perceived as “properly male”, together with the fear of being judged as “insufficiently masculine” and suffering stigma and ridicule, at best, and physical violence and life threat, at worst, prompt male-identifying individuals to constantly seek homosocial approval, attempt to behave in alignment with hegemonic masculinity and continuously reject and differentiate themselves from femininity.

In “Guyland: The Perilous world where boys become men” Michael Kimmel outlines his theory for “guyland” as a stage of life in between childhood and adulthood when “the struggle to prove manhood becomes even more intense, in part because it’s no longer as easy to differentiate between men and women as it was in the past” (Kimmel, 2008, p. 42). Inspired by Kimmel’s book and detailed (even if exaggerated and border-line extreme) depiction of college-aged American males’ problematic relationships with masculinity, I decided to conduct a survey to collect and analyze data about young men’s perceptions of masculinity in my home-country, Bulgaria.

              Method

To that end, I created an online survey consisting of demographic measures (for age, location, sexual orientation and level of education), six open-ended questions aiming to cast light on one’s self-identified concepts of masculinity (What does it mean to be a “man’’, according to you? What contributes to your identification as a male? What are 3-5 adjectives that characterize a “real” man?), as well as questions exploring the relationship between masculinity and otherness (What differentiates men and women? Does sexual orientation contribute to being perceived as a “man”?), and a question requesting respondents to identify times when their masculinity has been questioned or challenged (When does your “masculinity” get questioned: in what context? How do you react? Do you need to prove yourself as a man?). Finally, there was a space for comments and feedback.

The survey was disseminated through social media (Facebook) to my social network, as well as through the help of friends and through posting on numerous groups (student groups, interest groups (such as groups for bloggers and entrepreneurs). A friend who is involved with the biggest LGBT organization in Bulgaria posted the link to the survey on their Facebook page which perhaps resulted in the high participation of non-heterosexual individuals.

Results

The survey received a total of 48 individual responses. The target group for my study was young Bulgarian male-identifying individuals, aged 18-25. The median age of participants was 22 (see fig. 1 for age representation). Most study participants came from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria (35 respondents), the rest indicated that they lived in other major cities (a total of 8), with some living abroad (a total of 5).  My sample consisted of 54.2% heterosexuals, 29.2% homosexuals and a total of 16.6% identifying as “Other” (I had initially forgotten to include a separate category for “bisexual”, so it will be more accurate to look at bisexual and other together). In terms of education, 45.8% hold undergraduate degree, 31.3% have only Secondary education (High School), 10.4% hold Master degree and 12.5% indicated “Other”.  I coded the collected data paying attention to common themes and word usage and repetition.

Fig. 1 Age (Color codes represent ages between 18-25)

Age

Fig. 2 Sexual Orientation (Color codes: Blue- homosexual, Red- heterosexual, Yellow- bisexual (this category was created later, so it doesn’t include all individuals identifying as bisexual), Green- other)

Sexual Orientation

Fig. 3 Education (Color Codes: Blue- undergraduate/ bachelor degree, red- master’s degree, yellow- Secondary education (High School), green- other)

Edu

 

A portrait of a Real Man

When requested to write down 3-5 adjectives that characterize a “real” man, the survey participants listed over 75 “male” features which nevertheless could be grouped in several categories, including characteristics of strength and ability; rationality; adherence to principles; stability; respect; care and warmth.

Foremost, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mandatory characteristic for a man is to be “strong”. Yet not just physically strong, as one participant highlighted and several others echoed. In fact, male strength is described in multiple ways: for one, “strength is being able to deal with your problems without violence”, whereby using violence is a weakness, an attempt to prove your masculinity (which in reality you’re lacking)”, for others, strength is associated with diligence and resilience at work (“men should be able to endure more work and pressure, but these days women have become more “masculine” in that sense and men- the opposite”, a survey participant wrote). A man has to be strong physically and “psychologically”: this psychological vigor includes the category of security which also appears by itself (“(To be a man is) to be the pillar of the family, to always have a solution to the emotional problems of the gentle sex…”), as well as motivation and ambition for achievement (“Men act, while women think”), whereby independence is critical to marking the real man (“to be motivated to achieve your goals, without counting on anybody”).  As evident some of the statements made explicit gender distinctions between men and women, while others did not include a specified comparison subject. Perhaps the unnamed comparison subjects are boys- the younger males who have the potential to become “real” men, but have not yet proven themselves as such.

“Real” men are honest and direct. A man is one who “keeps his word” and is therefore “reliable” (eight men specifically or solely mentioned their “word” as the most significant factor to their identification as men). Similarly, a man has to be secure and stable, to be responsible, especially in the context of family life. To that end, a number of men highlighted that “a penis does not make you a man”. Evidently, “being a man” is a form of achievement of itself, one that not even all biological men can fulfill.

Interestingly, a number of traditionally-termed as “feminine” characteristics make their way into the list, thereby creating a complex image of the Bulgarian male, as one who needs to both be evidently masculine, therefore, cultivating in himself and acting out of strength, security, responsibility, hard work and initiative, yet in the same time be gentle, empathetic, emotionally mature, caring and supportive of others (especially, beloved women, children, relatives: “(To be a man) is to follow the object of your passion- whether a man or a woman- but specifically with women: to want to create a family and to then take care of it” and “A real man has to be gentle, kind and patient with his other half, to have real feelings for her…”).

Indeed, commitment to family and love partner seems to be crucial to participants’ understanding of what it means to be a man: how one treats women and children is seen as a definite marker of whether or not he deserves the title “A Man” (“For me, the man has to be next to the people he loves until the end, no matter of what, to be ready to do anything for them” and “a man should not hurt women, not make them or their children suffer, he has to be caring and loving as he would like others to be towards him when time comes”).

Fig. 4 Most frequently repeated words in response to prompt to list 3-5 characteristics of a “real” man

Word Frequency of appearance in sample’s responses
Strong 13
Honest 12
Stable, calm, secure 11
Responsible 9
Reliable, principled 7
Caring, altruistic, 7
Diligent, hardworking 6
Understanding, empathetic 5
Fair 4
Sensitive, emotionally mature 3

 

Masculinity as Homophobia

My question “Does sexual orientation impact whether a man is perceived as such? Why/ Why not?” posed some difficulties in coding because at times it was difficult to tell whether respondents were ironic or not, and whether they voiced their own thoughts on the subject or outlined their perception of societal attitudes against gay men.

The majority of respondents agreed that on a societal level sexual orientation is directly linked to how a man is perceived, whereby a man who is gay is directly assumed to be less of a man. While some brought up family to account for why a gay man is not “sufficiently masculine” (“Amongst the main priorities of a man is to create family and have offspring” and “being homosexual, the individual rejects all religious and familial values; the man needs to be the basis of the family”), other claimed that for a man to be gay is “against nature” and so they are not worthy of being called “men”. While some acknowledged the social biases against gay men, noting that “(In society) homosexuality is accepted as lack of ‘masculinity” and “the characteristic to like men is immediately accredited to women”, others expressed various opinions regarding gay males’ masculinity according to their gender performance (“sexual orientation impacts whether a man is seen as such, because homosexuality often is characterized by lady-like manners and thinking”). Arguably, some claimed that they don’t perceive gay men as less “manly” because “to be a man is pure biology”, as one participant put it. Yet, another noted the existence of a prejudice that “a man who doesn’t have an active sexual life is not a man”- a requirement that affects all men regardless of sexual orientation.

Challenged Masculinity

Asked whether their masculinity has been questioned or challenged, a majority of the respondents answered with “No” or gave an abstract answer.

A couple of recounted experiences include: being caught in a sexual act with a man (“(My masculinity was questioned) when I was caught giving a blowjob at a party, I was ridiculed and considered suicide”), having homosexual friends or defending homosexuality (“My own mother questioned my sexuality when I shared that I have many homosexual friends at my college in the US and rejected the idea that their homosexuality is a psychological condition… She started wondering if I’m not defending them just because I’m homosexual, too”).

In order to be perceived as a man, one needs to assert gender-appropriate interests:

“There have been times when I’ve felt uncomfortable having to talk solely about women and cars and the related (topics) which are typical for men and that all representatives of the “strong sex” are experts in. In such situations you are just forced to repeat the words of some evident “macho” in the group, so that you don’t look too weird and unmanly”

and act as a “man” in all expected ways:

“People are slaves to their stereotypes about what a man should be like, what he should do, how he should behave, etc. Something I get across often is that being a vegetarian when I’m around strangers, I am always met with the question: “How can you not eat meet, what kind of a man are you? Even my mother has told me: “You are a man, you have to eat meat”, paradoxically, she has been vegetarian for forty years😀 I try to explain that it has nothing to do with masculinity (…) not eating meat does not make me less of a man then someone who eats 5kg of meat a day😀, but I usually find lack of understanding (…)”.

Still, coming out as gay is perhaps the biggest challenge to being seen as a man (“Since I came out to a close friend of mine, her comments (about how much of a man I am) haven’t stopped with and without reason. Interestingly, she stops when we’re with someone who doesn’t know my sexual orientation, as far as I can tell it’s a defense”).  Indeed, the homosexual participants in the survey varied in their approaches and understanding of how “masculinity” interacts with their sexual orientation.

One said that his masculinity is challenged “all the time because I don’t fit the characteristics of a ‘macho’ (I have a small and thin body), I have a different sexuality and I’m not afraid to do things typical for women like dying my hair or painting my nails, sitting with crossed legs and liking things associated with gentleness.” He continued: “I frequently receive comments like ‘What kind of a man are you?’ but I don’t feel the need to prove myself to anybody… I don’t feel it’s offensive to be associated with women and women qualities, so I don’t feel bad if it happens”. Another explained that being gay “liberated” him from having to defend his masculinity: “I haven’t had to (defend my maleness), I’m always saved by the fact I’m gay”. Yet another explicitly stated that despite being homosexual, he is not “feminine”, therefore he doesn’t have to prove himself as a man.

Discussion of findings and limitations

In “Guyland: The Perilous world where boys become men” Michael Kimmel outlines a profile of the American male in his twenties as “emotionally numb” (Kimmel, 2004, p.53) “white, middle-class, college-bound, in college, or recently graduated” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 8) young men, having a “diminished capacity for empathy” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 59). While perhaps this description overstates the impact of hegemonic masculinity over individuals and more closely represents characteristics of groups of young men in all-male environments (sport clubs, fraternities, etc.), I found that it is also strongly influenced by culture.

While the data from my study did yield a tendency to construct masculinity as a “repudiation of the feminine” (Kimmel, 2004, p. 45) and assertion of heterosexuality and reliability, it also defined masculinity in relationship to community, family and love. Aggression did not seem to partake an important role in the construction of maleness.

Before I continue with the analyses (and speculation about) my findings, I must acknowledge the limitations of my study and present a rationale for the limited generability of my data. Certainly, my sample does not represent all young Bulgarian men, since the study participants were predominantly educated males from urban settings. Perhaps youth from rural Bulgaria who have been exposed to less diversity and educational opportunities and who live in areas where patriarchal values are stronger would have more extreme positions than the ones presented here. Yet, I am confident that introducing the thoughts and experiences of my survey participants can be useful to identifying tendencies in constructing and understanding masculinity in Bulgaria.

To that end, making sense of the presented data cannot be achieved without a look at the sociocultural context of Bulgaria. An empiric sociological study on organizational culture in Bulgaria based on the methodology of Geert Hofstede (Davidkov, 2004) contended that the Bulgarian society ranks among the countries with low level of individualism (Davidkov, 2004, p. 14), whereby Bulgaria ranks 21st, France 10th/11th, UK- 3rd and USA- 1st (Davidkov, 2004, p. 13). Within this theoretical frame, a collectivist society is one where “relationships prevail over tasks”, “identity is based in the social network to which one belongs to”, and “people are born into extended families or other in-groups which continue to protect them in exchange for loyalty” (Davidkov, 2004, p. 14). Furthermore, the Hofstede model provides an empirical formula for the calculation of a country’s “masculinity” (through identification of “masculinity index”).

A country is “masculine”, if its dominant values are success and progress, whereby  conflicts are fought out and people “work to live”. Women’s and men’s roles are, thereby, clearly defined: men are tough and ambitious, while women are tender and focused on relationship-building and maintenance (Davidkov, 2004, 18). According to these and other criteria, “the definitions of masculine and feminine define us as a nation having rather feminine behavior” (Davidkov, 2004, p. 18). In a “feminine” nation the normative values are caring for others and preservation: people and quality of relationships are seen as more important than money and success and both men and women are allowed to be tender, and both mothers and fathers deal with facts and feeling (while in “masculine” nations mothers attend to feelings and fathers- to facts). In this context, one works to live and resolves conflicts by negotiation and compromise (Davidkov, 2004, p. 18).

Within this sociocultural context, the attitudes towards masculinity found in my survey fit rather well the societal norms of a collectivist, “feminine” society which prioritizes interpersonal relationships and interdependency over an individualistic, materialist and achievement-oriented agenda.  Despite moving towards more capitalist, “Western” modes of production, trade and lifestyle, Bulgarians (and highly educated Bulgarians, at that) are still deeply affected by traditional and modernized values, highlighting the importance of community and mutual care. Despite exposure to American (and more broadly- Western) television and music and changes in dating and marriage patterns, the Bulgarian young male still constructs his identity as a man in relation to his upcoming roles of a romantic partner, father and responsible member of society. His less pronounced emphasis on professional and educational growth does not exclude such orientation, yet clearly demonstrates an operating hierarchy, whereby work does not score first.

 

References:

  • Kimmel, M. S. (2000). “Masculinity as Homophobia: Fear, Shame, and Silence in the Construction of Gender Identity”, 213-219. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism. New York, NY: Routldege.
  • Kimmel, M. S. (2008). Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men. New York: Harper.
  • Davidkov, T. (2004). Where do we stand? Papeles Del Este, 8, 1-22. Retrieved April 8, 2016, from https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/PAPE/article/download/PAPE0404120001A/25824.

 


Little Daily Insight: you WILL get hurt

The simple truth is that If you are a closed-off, fearful, unapproachable, reserved person, you will get hurt a few times in life. And even if you are the most open, brave, honest and loving person, you will still get hurt a few times in Life. So, as it seems, the fact that you’ll get hurt a number of times in your life is a given. But you can still choose what kind of a person to be.

This is something Stephen Kiernan told me recently that really stayed with me and that I turn to in moments of pain. I believe it has a soothing power.
I think it brings a great relief to just accept that getting hurt is a part of the game. It is not by default a punishment. You may get hurt and not have wronged in any way (think “collateral damage” or politics, being at the wrong place at the wrong time).
I’m now working on erasing the thought process that claims “I am a good person, so this shouldn’t be happening to me”. I am who I am because it’s impossible for me not to.