Feeling Femme: Observations from Femme Hive 2014

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

The main Femme Hive venue at Villa Neukölln, Berlin

This October I was lucky enough to be supported by the YWCA Canberra and the ANU, to attend the Femme Hive conference in Berlin. With my PhD work focusing in large part on femme identity, the conference provided a rare opportunity for me to meet femmes outside of an Australian context.

If you’re currently wondering “what even is femme and why is there a conference on it?”, check out this great explanation of femme identity from Queer Fat Femme Bevin Branlandingham. Many people have not come across the term femme before, and even some people I spoke to at the conference were unsure of what the term meant. While the conference was organised around feeling empowered about being queer and feminine identifying, some people were there because other people had labeled them as femme (e.g. lesbian couples are often confronted with the question “so who’s the woman and who’s the man in the relationship?” as if every time there must be a butch/femme pairing). A lot of people at the conference just wanted to find a space where they could feel comfortable being accepted as queer, where their feminine appearance was not simply dismissed as heteronormative.

femme pres 2

Contemplating femme at Femme Hive 2014

Unfortunately when I first received the grant from the YWCA, a local gossip magazine here in Canberra ran an article on me titled Queer Femme Is? which challenged the legitimacy of femme identity and biphobically mocked me as “a gal who likes hanging around with lesbians but prefers the closer company of a boyfriend”. This hostility was the first reminder of exactly why femme is an important topic for discussion – because so many people can end up feeling marginalised both within LGBT scenes and in the broader community, just because they are more “feminine” and therefore don’t fit within a neat set of assumptions about “deviating” from the norm.

Blush performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

B.L.U.S.H. performing at the Femme Party, Schwuz

While the conference program was full of wonderful workshops, the best part for me was just listening to people’s own experiences of being femme within a queer community. Apparently in Berlin femme identity doesn’t carry much cache in the queer scene, and it was interesting that the conference organisers talked about “cultivating a culture of desiring femme” as one of their main goals. Significantly, the opening night of the conference involved a burlesque/drag/musical show, with a very diverse range of acts from across Europe exploring the theme of femme. The venue, Schwuz (a club that had a long queue, entry requirements of an airport and sold grapefruit beer), was packed, with more people sporting undercuts than I had ever seen gathered in one room. The acts revealed the complexity of femme, with each one so different from the last that it was impossible to settle on a concrete idea of femme identity’s common denominator.

The flyer for the Femme Party

The flyer for the Femme Party

One particularly interesting piece focused on fat femme identity. Presented by the burlesque group B.L.U.S.H., one of the performers came out wearing a dressing gown, reading a women’s magazine. After showing disappointment that her larger body did not match the bodies shown in the magazine, she tore it up and stripped down entirely. Her body was round and tattooed. She slowly put on knee-high stockings, high heels and lingerie. To a huge cheer from the audience she took out a chocolate brownie from a box and smooshed it into her face, broke off several pieces and threw them into the audience. Openly didactic, this performance was interesting in terms of exploring the body politics of femininity (what is an acceptable “size” for feminine bodies). Indeed the question of “normal” bodies and the marginalisation of fat queer feminine bodies was a key topic of discussion in the conference overall. The performance was also interesting because it alluded to the “putting on” involved in femininity, without marking this as a negative thing (as femininity is so often accused of being a “masquerade” in feminist and other writing).

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Getting my ideas together prior to presenting at Femme Hive

Of course it wasn’t all burlesque and glitter. A weekend of workshops followed and I was lucky enough to present my research work on the last day. My presentation was called “Feeling Queer Femme: Assemblages and the Body” and in it I explored the troubles of representing (trying to “pin down”) femme, as well as the corporeal and sensory aspects of embodying femme (a theme that emerged in my interviews with queer femmes in Australia). Though it was a bit strange presenting my version of femme to a room full of femme people, it was amazing to hear that attendees found the session so helpful for clarifying their own experiences and ideas on the topic, even though this was something they were living out day to day in their own lives.

Overall the experience was amazing and my ideas on the topic of femme have both been affirmed and expanded through attending Femme Hive. Now to finish writing that thesis of mine…

Worried about your body? Join the club.

I haven’t always had a super happy relationship with my body, but it’s only been the last little while that I’ve really started to care properly about my weight. And when I say properly I mean, get obsessive.

In high school I was too distracted with worries about my ubiquitous dark body hair and small bust to think much about weight. My genetic predisposition/height/beach lifestyle/youth meant that I ate crap-tonnes of chips and never really worried about my midsection. Plus my mum raised me with an extremely good ethic of “love who you are“, and never spoke about dieting or an obsession with losing weight herself. When I got to uni, I would prance around in teeny shorts, still revelling in my 19-year-old metabolism. But I remember the day I started caring. I was 21, and I looked in the mirror at my bum and though, “Oh, right. Shit.” That moment didn’t really alter my eating or exercising behaviour much, though I did start covering up more. Mostly all I got was an unhealthy dose of body-angst.

I’ve always been someone who rejects “diets” and been the first to tell my friends who are trying to lose weight that they are crazy and don’t actually need to change a thing. Now I’m 26 and I’m not sure what triggered it in the last month or two, but I started to pay attention to my body a lot more. I decided I would try and take control of my eating and exercising. As soon as I started “calorie counting” and swapping hot chocolates for tea, and pasta for mountain wraps, I became a lot more aware of just how starving some people (especially famous people) must actually be. I’ve been trying to eat “well” and exercise a significant amount, but it makes me wonder- heck those famous people must be eating air to stay as thin as they are. And damn, they must be cranky!

It turns out yes, Jennifer Aniston for one is rumoured to have eaten the same salad for her entire decade on Friends. Just one type of salad. For 10 years!

I’m not on a crazy one-salad diet, but in the last month or so I have changed my eating habits, lost some weight and toned up a bit. But I’ve also become fairly obsessed about food and how I look, and that sure seems like a bung trade-off. I think I was lucky to have escaped the weight game for so long. Though I agree that magazines perpetuate unhealthy stereotypes of bodies, I don’t think you can just “blame the media“. These kind of critiques flatten our understanding of how ideas of what is “normal” perpetuate in society, and I hate to say it, but I think most of the time it comes down to ourselves – we are effectively policing each other’s bodies, every day.

“Well, at least this debilitating illness is making me thinner….”

Example 1: You comment to someone, “oh, have you lost weight?”. They might immediately feel self-conscious that you have been silently judging their weight in the first place (“you thought I was fat before?!”) while simultaneously proud that they look thinner (and who knows, maybe they’ve lost weight because they have swine flu…)

Example 2: You complain to someone that you feel “so fat” and are trying to lose weight or are on a diet. This often comes up when you are buying/eating food together. The other person might immediately feel guilty for not doing the same act of abnegation.

Example 3: You judge the crap out of your own body. If you get in a judgey state of mind, there is no way that you are not judging everyone around you and comparing yourself to them. It’s a negative cycle with all roads leading to judge town, population: you.

Then of course, there are the overt examples of you or others blatantly commenting on weight or size, “you could exercise more”, “you are too skinny”, etc etc (or my personal favourite: I bought a packet of Oreos to a work meeting, and one of my colleagues told me I should “watch [my] arms”). If we simply blame the media, we miss the fact that we open up Vogue and condemn the lack of diverse bodies on the one hand, and then all secretly download calorie counting apps and don’t have a tim-tam when it comes to afternoon tea, on the other. We are promulgating the issue, just by the fact that we don’t acknowledge just how much we are really judging ourselves.

There’s obviously no simple remedy to this (except maybe watching a local Roller Derby game to remember that kicking-ass comes in all shapes and sizes). But perhaps, if we can’t stop judging ourselves – and by that standard others – maybe we can at least admit that we are. We need to think: when we are watching weight, is that all that we are really watching?


What’s with all the fat hate of late?

Tara Lynn- a so called "plus-sized model"- reminding us that on some women thighs are allowed to be bigger than ankles!

Currently on Australian television, there are at least two anti-fat (fatphobic?) shows screening. Sure, this kind of thing has been around for years. But amazingly, they seem to be reaching new lows on the encouraging body-hate front. Yes, this year’s Biggest Loser program (as if it isn’t bad enough that they make everyone’s stated aim to be a “loser”), is all about the “singles”. That is, those people who supposedly can’t get a date because of their weight (cos like, no one wants to date a fattie right?).

Since when did being weighty make you unloveable? It seems like a lot of the people on these shows have major self esteem problems, that actually probably go hand in hand with their weight gain due to some other reason. But rather than dealing with those kind of underlying factors, the aim of the game is to lose lose lose and be a normal skinny person – hooray! And rather than getting fit and stopping at some still full and voluptuous weight, these people are encouraged to keep going until they practically fade away. And I’m pretty sure that for most people, a “normal” weight range (whatever that means) is actually pretty vast. I downloaded an app the other day that told me I could literally put on another 20 kilos and still be a “healthy” weight.

It turns out these TV shows sure ain’t the only fat-hate going down at the moment. The recent Strong4life campaign being run in Georgia USA has been advertising a serious war on children’s weight. Apparently you can’t actually be a kid now if you’re fat- as one Strong4life tagline tells us, “being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.” This argument reminds me of the whole “we have to correct intersex conditions or those kids will be incessantly teased”. It seems to me like when we run campaigns that say what’s okay and what’s not okay, or perform surgeries to reinforce what is “normal”, well, actually that’s bullying- through defining what is normal in the first place.

Queer fat femme standing against weight-hate. She's pretty much the bestest femme ever. Check her out at queerfatfemme.com

Somewhat hearteningly, there has been a backlash against Strong4life called “Stand4kids” (not to be confused with the terrifying missionary group of the same name) which aims to target weight bigotry (you can join them on Facebook here).

When it comes down to fat-hating TV (and lets be honest, most of the film and television industry is pro-skinny), I think we have to take a hard look at ourselves and ask where the enjoyment for these shows comes from. Maybe it’s interesting to watch before and after journeys. Maybe it’s that we want to watch people struggling to exercise and eat well, just like we all do. Or, maybe it’s just that we want to watch some “freaks” get tortured and shamed for being “different”. Oh dear.

But the more I look around me, the more I notice curvy chicks oozing confidence and being proud of their bodies. And why shouldn’t they be. What I wouldn’t give for some cleavage…