Dying Without Dignity: An Intersectional Analysis of Lhamo’s Death and Domestic Violence in China

by Sophia Garbarino, December 22, 2020

“More than 900 women have died at the hands of their husbands or partners since China’s law against domestic violence was enacted in 2016”

(CHEN, 2020).

Lhamo, a Tibetan woman and popular social media star living in southwestern China, was one of them. Two weeks after her ex-husband set her on fire, Ms. Lhamo died in the hospital, leaving her two sons and a rekindled wave of women’s rights protests behind. Her story, according to The New York Times reporter Elsie Chen (2020), reflects the Chinese government and law enforcement’s inability, and perhaps lack of desire, to protect its women. However, there are several underlying factors influencing feminist politics in China that went unaddressed in Chen’s report, along with the few other news reports covering the same story. Ms. Lhamo’s tragic death is also a product of brutal, complex relationships between ethnicity, sexuality, and socioeconomic status, revealing minimal progress towards equality and justice despite written law.

Ms. Lhamo’s family was well aware of her husband’s abuse, as she frequently fled her home with bruises and injuries over the course of their marriage. When she divorced him for the first time, he threatened to kill their children, forcing Ms. Lhamo to remarry him.

The local police further ignored her abuse complaints after this, allegedly telling her that because it was a “personal family matter… there was nothing they could do”

(Chen, 2020).

While it may seem like a feminist issue on the surface, the authorities’ ignorance actually reflects a much larger, deeper ethnic prejudice. As a Tibetan, Ms. Lhamo was a minority, and according to Human Rights Watch, her case “illustrate[s] the Chinese government’s long-running mistreatment of Tibetans,” stemming from tense relations after the failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese occupation in 1959 (2020). Since 2006, the government has forcibly relocated and created “near complete restriction on the freedom of movement” of over 2 million Tibetans (Minority Rights Group International, 2017). Even before any domestic abuse occurred, Ms. Lhamo was already a victim of injustice because of her national origin. However, Chen’s report does not mention this, reflecting a broader lack of attention to ethnic individualities within the global feminist context.

As Syracuse University professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Chandra Talpade Mohanty writes in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (2003), “systems of racial, class, and gender domination do not have identical effects on women in Third World contexts” (p. 55). As such, a Tibetan woman such as Ms. Lhamo would not receive the same treatment as a Han Chinese woman would because of her ethnicity (the Han ethnic group is the largest in China). Furthermore, she had lower socioeconomic status, producing additional challenges. For poor minority women like Ms. Lhamo, human rights have “always been mediated by a coercive, racist state” (Mohanty, 2003, p. 54). According to Chen’s report,

“in the countryside, where Ms. Lhamo was from, victims often lack social support networks and are less educated about their rights”

(2020).

Even after “she sought help from All-China Women’s Federation, the government agency in charge of protecting women’s rights,” Ms. Lhamo was denied justice “when an official dismissed her injuries, saying other women were worse off” (Chen, 2020). This prompted her to file for divorce a second time, after which the police did bare minimal investigation and let her husband escape any consequences yet again.

Ms. Lhamo’s experiences and tragic death went unaddressed by the Chinese government, with the Communist body going as far as censoring social media hashtags like #LhamoAct (Chen, 2020). As Mohanty writes in Feminism Without Borders, “Chinese women ‘disappear’ in popular and academic discourses on China, only to reappear in ‘case studies’ or in the ‘culture garden’” (2003, p. 76). Ms. Lhamo is a clear example of this. Chinese feminist issues have gone largely unaddressed in Western media and academia, only resurfacing when case studies such as Ms. Lhamo’s occur. Western feminisms often fail to incorporate the “diverse struggles and histories” of women from other countries, more commonly lumping them together to further their own agendas (Mohanty, 2003, p. 46). Like Mohanty, professor Amrita Basu of Amherst College recognizes the necessity of diversity inclusion, arguing that when feminist discourses fail to identify and consider cultural influences on women’s experiences, particularly regarding gender violence, women’s “identities as Bosnian, African American, or poor women may be muted” (2000, p. 76). These are only a few examples of the several aspects that comprise one’s identity.

To make any progress towards true gender equality in China, the diverse population and cultures must be considered. This includes diversity in sexuality, which Chen also does not address in her report. Like the United States, China’s political and social structures are based on heterosexism and homophobia. As feminist scholar Audre Lorde writes, heterosexism is the “belief in the inherent superiority of one form of loving over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (1985, p. 3). Currently, China’s Domestic Violence Law “does not protect gay couples,” and though it does protect cohabitating couples, Chinese government official Guo Linmao noted at a press conference that

“for homosexuals in our country, we have not yet discovered this form of violence… it can be said that people who cohabit does not include homosexuals”

(Reuters Staff, 2015).

Essentially, he meant gay couples do not encounter domestic violence, which is untrue.

Chen’s report echoes this false assertion, though perhaps not intentionally, quoting Chinese women’s rights lawyer Wan Miaoyan, “But why does it take a tragedy and a victim to sacrifice herself in such a bloody way before we make progress on law enforcement?” (Chen, 2020). This statement assumes all domestic violence victims are women. However, according to the United States National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2010), members of the LGBTQ+ community “have an equal or higher prevalence of experiencing IPV [intimate partner violence], SV [sexual violence], and stalking as compared to self-identified heterosexuals” (CDC, p. 1). China is certainly not exempt from this pattern. In fact, a 2009 survey conducted by the Chinese organization Common Language found that of the 900 participating lesbian and bisexual women, “42.2 percent reported intimate partner violence with same sex partners” (UNDP, 2014, p. 28). In every aspect of injustice, LGBTQ+ folks continue to fight for recognition and support, especially when the government refuses to protect them. As a member of the heterosexual hegemony, this is one battle that Ms. Lhamo did not have to fight, which some may consider a privilege despite her tragic situation.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, instances of domestic and intimate partner violence have significantly increased due to lockdown and quarantine policies. According to another domestic violence report from The New York Times (2020), Chinese “activists, citing interviews with abused women, estimate the numbers are far higher, especially after millions were placed under lockdown during the pandemic” (Wee). As Basu writes, “Women’s movement activists have employed the term violence against women in describing diverse practices cross nationally… in order to assert the global dimensions of a single problem” (2000, p. 78). Unfortunately, partner violence is not a single problem. It is stuck in a web of complex, intersectional relationships between sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, and more. However, despite the multitude of experiential and cultural differences, women like Ms. Lhamo still share many similarities and often unite on these common grounds. China’s women are not alone, and like every country around the world, China has a long road ahead to achieving gender justice.


References

Basu, A. (2000). Globalization of the local/localization of the global mapping transnational women’s movements. Meridians, 1(1), p. 68–84. https://doi.org/10.1215/15366936-1.1.68

CDC. (2010). NISVS: An overview of 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_victimization_final-a.pdf

Chen, E. (2020, November 15). Her abuse was a ‘family matter,’ until it went live. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/world/asia/china-women-domestic-abuse.html

China: Tibetan woman dies in custody. (2020, October 29). Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/10/29/china-tibetan-woman-dies-custody#

Lorde, A. (1985). I am your sister: Black women organizing across sexualities. Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.

Mohanty, C.T. (2003). Feminism without borders: Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Duke University Press.

Reuters Staff. (2015, December 27). China passes first domestic violence law, gay couples excluded. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-lawmaking-family/china-passes-first-domestic-violence-law-gay-couples-excluded-idINKBN0UA08A20151227

Tibetans. (2017, November). Minority Rights Group International. Retrieved December 8, 2020, from https://minorityrights.org/minorities/tibetans/

Two spirit. (2020). Indian Health Service. Retrieved December 7, 2020, from https://www.ihs.gov/lgbt/health/twospirit/

UNDP. (2014). Being LGBT in Asia: China country report. https://www.asia-pacific.undp.org/content/dam/rbap/docs/Research%20&%20Publications/hiv_aids/rbap-hhd-2014-blia-china-country-report.pdf

Wee, S. (2020, September 16). Her husband abused her. But getting a divorce was an ordeal. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/asia/china-domestic-abuse.html

Yang, H. (2020, April 1). China’s domestic violence law turns four. The Asia Foundation. https://asiafoundation.org/2020/04/01/chinas-domestic-violence-law-turns-four/

Check Your Bias: Why Women’s Studies Should Amend Its Relationship With Biology

by Marcela Muricy, November 30, 2020

Over the years, a gap has grown. As it has expanded, the women’s studies field has largely distanced itself from making connections to the field that may cause it to flourish most: biology. Either due to lack of knowledge or necessity, many articles that could have included aspects of biology to support their claim chose not to. In addition, the women’s studies field has made several claims that science is biased, and has used that to discredit certain concrete pieces of information they could be using to their own benefit. Incorporating biology into their work would further fortify their claims, increase their credibility and respectability, as well as widen their target audience towards the scientific realm. The two need not clash, but rather integrate. As it stands, the disconnect from biology may be causing the misanalyzing of certain concepts and hindering the women’s studies field to grow, despite how much more they could accomplish by amending the relationship between the two fields.

An argument that has gained plentiful traction among those in the women’s studies field is that biologists allow bias to affect their perception of research and their own field. Here’s an example: Emily Martin’s “The Egg and the Sperm” critiques how scientific explanations are affected by gender roles, especially when it comes to reproductive systems. She analyzes the story of fertilization the way it is regularly told, questioning the choice of words. Eggs are said to “passively flow down the fallopian tubes,” while the sperm “go on a perilous journey” and travel actively towards the egg.1 Martin claims this personification of the germ cells gives them traits associated with women and men that coat our understanding of the reproductive system1—for instance, how the sperm travel “actively” and the eggs “await rescue.” Without the knowledge of the biological processes themselves, many wouldn’t hesitate to feel bothered by these facts, unable to reason this evidence otherwise. However, the common language in biology is to use “active” to signify energy (ATP) usage and passive to mean the lack thereof. Sperm is designed for travel, its most abundant organelle being mitochondria, so that it can reach the egg (which moves without energy) in the fallopian tubes. Excluding this, either because she chose to do so or simply wasn’t aware of the rhetoric, is harmful because it causes a devaluing and miscrediting of not only her claim, but of the biology field. This is a piece of information that biology majors learn in their freshman year of university, so anyone above that level of learning has the ability to see this flaw and the disconnect between the field of women’s studies and biology.

“The Egg and The Sperm,” published in 1996, has dominated the argument of scientific bias in the study of reproduction, but it seems many are unwilling to critique Martin and adjust her argument. Her purpose with this piece was to critique the impact that bias can have on science, which is an undeniably valid argument. Subjectivity is a myth, as all humans are impacted by their implicit bias and bound to apply that to their research. Yet, this should not be the primary example to support her claim because of its fundamental flaw, making Martin’s lack of knowledge in biology quite clear and weakening what may have otherwise been a very strong piece. In critiquing the bias in science, Martin then made her own bias evident, ultimately deflecting biologists away from the women’s studies field and furthering the divide.

This causes many people—women’s studies writers, biologists, as well as the general population—to view the two as incompatible, contradictory, and mutually exclusive. However, regularly using both lenses to analyze society can be illuminating and beneficial going forward. For instance, take a popular claim made by many feminist writers: sex (in addition to gender) is a socially constructed spectrum dependent on factors beyond just the sex chromosomes people carry. A claim such as this is baseless without the science to support it, so including concrete examples such as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome can help solidify its validity. An individual with this condition, born with XY chromosomes, is phenotypically female because of the lack of androgen receptors. Androgens refer to hormones such as testosterone and DHT, essential for the expression of male traits. This individual, instead, exhibits female traits, but with no internal reproductive system.3 This serves as an incredible example that sex definitions are not so clear-cut because someone may not necessarily be ‘male’ even with XY chromosomes. This also helps explain the issues that may arise with hormone testing in sports, such as what took place with Maria José Martínez-Patiño, a Spanish Olympic hurdler with androgen insensitivity who failed the gender test. These topics can be incredibly complex to understand without a biological background, so creating this bridge between women’s studies and biology can facilitate the discourse surrounding these controversies and intricacies.

Rather than straying away from biology, then, there comes an immense benefit from embracing it and using it to solidify specific concepts and ideas. It can help strengthen feminists’ arguments while also expanding the target audience to those with a higher affinity for biology than sociology. They may also seek to critique biologists, yet they must do so with concrete research to build the discussion rather than hinder it. Once the conversation allows for biology and women’s studies to become amalgamated, the intersection between the two fields will serve to fundamentally shift the way many perceive the world towards a more accurate and educated perspective. This progress can only be achieved with the women’s studies field developing an intimate relationship with biology, using scientific evidence to refute arguments, but most importantly: checking their own bias.


References

1. Martin, E. (spring, 1991). The Egg and The Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. University of Chicago Press. Signs, Vol. 16(No. 3), 485-501. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174586

2. Notes & Videos- [1.2.1]Compare the mechanisms of active vs. passive transport. (n.d.). University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://canvas.pitt.edu/courses/63946/pages/notes-and-videos-1-dot-2-1-compare-the-mechanisms-of-active-vs-passive-transport

3. Singh, S., & Ilyayeva, S. (2020, June 24). Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK542206/.

4. Martinez-Patino, M. J. (2005). Personal Account: A woman tried and tested. Sports and Medicine,366(December), 538-538. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)67841-5

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

by Pavithra Venkataraman, October 24, 2020

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month! See the infographic below for more information.


Now and Then: An Analysis of Forced Sterilizations in the U.S.

by Sanjana Sankaran, October 18, 2020

In early September, news broke out about a whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, who alleged ‘medical neglect’ of ICE detainees and shined a light on the occurrence of unwanted mass hysterectomies. Wooten was a nurse who worked at one of the detention centers in Georgia.  She claimed that the care received was improper and unsafe which likely caused the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to the news reports and her statements, approximately seventeen to twenty women have confirmed that they were forcibly sterilized—that is, either their uterus or fallopian tubes were removed.  Wooten called this doctor, who was later identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, a “uterus collector” (Miroff). Dr. Amin is a member of the Irwin County Hospital and has a private clinic close to the detention center.  Since the allegations have come out, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) wrote a letter that was signed by one hundred and seventy-three other representatives to launch an investigation into the medical practitioners employed by ICE, with a focus on Dr. Amin specifically (Miroff).

While the investigation is still ongoing, we know one thing for certain: we’ve been here before.  The U.S. has a historical precedence of conducting mass unwarranted and unwanted hysterectomies, causing many to worry that these allegations are true.

The development of the gynecological sciences itself is rooted in a history of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse toward Black, Latinx, and indigenous women.  In the 19th century, Dr. J. Marion Sims, who is now considered the father of modern gynecology, forcefully performed a number of experiments on enslaved Black women without the use of anesthesia.  Despite his strategically inhumane testing, Dr. Sims has been lauded for his discoveries and has statues erected in his honor across the country (Lennard). 

We don’t have to look that far in the past to see neglect and abuse in our healthcare system.  In the last century alone, thousands of women were forcibly sterilized across the nation.  At the turn of the 20th century, the eugenics movement started gaining more traction.  Perverting Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” many eugenicists believed it was natural and justified to facilitate the death of those with “unfavorable” genes.  This became shorthand for BIPOC lives, specifically the poor and the disabled.  This widespread scientific belief had shocking sociological implications. In the late 20th century, thirty-two states in the U.S. had federally funded eugenics programs involving sterilizing women who possessed “undesirable” genes (Lennard).   In the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Service, which is the federal healthcare service provider for indigenous peoples, conducted hysterectomies at such a wide scale that the impact is still being felt now even generations later.  Around one in four women, and in some communities, as many as one in two women, were forcibly sterilized (Blakemore).

Figure 1 below provides a timeline of reproductive rights (Chuen).

Figure 1. A History of Racism, Sterilization Abuse, and Reproductive Rights (1919 – 1977).

To better understand the role ICE plays in perpetuating medical neglect and abuse, we must acknowledge the history of malicious activities within this organization.  The immigrant detention centers have been linked with racism and medical malpractice. In 1914, the United States Public Health Service partnered with the eugenics movement and worked together to prevent further immigration. They specifically targeted BIPOC’s, poor people, and the disabled implying they were the ones most likely to be criminals. This false view that BIPOC, especially those who are low income and living with disabilities, are more likely to commit crime than well-off able-bodied white people, still shapes our society today, most notably reforming our criminal justice policy (Ordaz).  Prior to President Trump’s election to office in 2016, ICE had an imperative to detain immigrants with criminal records.  Given the negative stereotyping and implicit bias that police officers have against BIPOC, this was already an unfair policy.  The current administration has since expanded this policy to apply to all immigrants who enter the country without documentation, removing the requirement of criminality.  Many federal investigations conducted over the past four years that have raised serious concerns about the state of ICE detention centers.  Specifically, the centers provide inhumane, unsanitary, and unhygienic conditions for detainees. When Dawn Wooten, the whistleblower, spoke out on the conditions of the ICE camps she stated, “I began to ask questions about why the detainees not be tested — symptomatic or non-symptomatic” (Alvarez).  Operationally, the centers already violate standard protocol and indicate clear negligence and devolution of human life (United States, Dept of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General).

During the Trump era beliefs of white supremacy, xenophobia and misogyny have only increased. His beliefs that all Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists” emboldened the racist’s in the U.S. further dividing an already divided world. It is astounding that the administration that is so clearly pro-life, allows sterilization to take place, it is an oxymoron. This lack of action is because this administration is not pro-life. If the administration were actually pro-life, they would have had a national mask mandate, done shelter in place in February, stop denying the virus’s fatality rate, and keep the Affordable Care Act, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. 

The allegations of mass hysterectomies in ICE right now must be met with the utmost seriousness.  The doctors who have participated in these events or were bystanders should be met with some kind of consequence. The mass hysterectomies are a direct attack against women and are the result of a long upheld belief that not only do BIPOC women not have value but that women should not be in control of their own bodies. Whether it was one or twenty or a thousand, forced hysterectomies are acts of absolute moral malfeasance. 

Below are other resources to learn more about the history of forced sterilization. 

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/09/trump-ice/565772/

https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/mass-hysterectomies-ice-happened-trump-s-watch-they-re-america-ncna1240238

https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/16/us/ice-hysterectomy-forced-sterilization-history/index.html


Works Cited

Alvarez, Priscilla. “Whistleblower Alleges High Rate of Hysterectomies and Medical Neglect at ICE Facility.” CNN, Cable News Network, 16 Sept. 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/09/15/politics/immigration-customs-enforcement-medical-care-detainees/index.html. 

Blakemore, Erin. “The Little-Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women.” Daily JSTOR, JSTOR, 25 Aug. 2016, daily.jstor.org/the-little-known-history-of-the-forced-sterilization-of-native-american-women/. 

Chuen, Lorraine. “A Visualized History of Racism and Reproductive Rights in America.” Intersectional Analyst, Intersectional Analyst, 5 Feb. 2016, http://www.intersectionalanalyst.com/intersectional-analyst/2016/2/4/racismreproductiverights.

Lennard, Natasha. “The Long, Disgraceful History of American Attacks on Brown and Black Women’s Reproductive Systems.” The Intercept, 17 Sept. 2020, theintercept.com/2020/09/17/forced-sterilization-ice-us-history/.

Miroff, Nick. “Hospital Where Activists Say ICE Detainees Were Subjected to Hysterectomies Says Just Two Were Performed There.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Sept. 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/ice-detainee-hysterectomies-hospital/2020/09/22/aaf2ca7e-fcfd-11ea-830c-a160b331ca62_story.html.

Minna, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century.” The Conversation, 5 Oct. 2020, theconversation.com/forced-sterilization-policies-in-the-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-with-disabilities-and-lasted-into-the-21st-century-143144. 

Ordaz, Jessica. “Perspective | Migrant Detention Centers Have a Long History of Medical Neglect and Abuse.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Sept. 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/18/migrant-detention-centers-have-long-history-medical-neglect-abuse/.

United States, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. “Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Four Detention Facilities.” Washington: DHS, 2019. Web. 9 Oct. 2020.


“The Woman’s Advocate:” The Vicious Consequences of Beauty Standards

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

The Woman’s Advocate

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

The number drops, but never satisfied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

Striking lights and shooting cameras blind me

As I walk, stop, and turn, my head held high

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

I loved you til the time I turned thirteen

When you pushed pain down my throat; I complied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

Deafening silence, struggling to breathe

But my knees are so weak, shaking mid-stride.

I step; you are disappointed, I see.

You killed my dream, slithering from the tree

I resisted; you persuaded and lied.

I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?

I pose for you and the paparazzi

Later, you knock, but it says occupied;

All gone; you are disappointed in me.

But I look so pretty; don’t you agree?


“The Woman’s Advocate:” The Vicious Consequences of Beauty Standards

Society has never been kind to women, and although women have more civil and political rights today than ever before, society has never been more unkind to them. The modern advertising and modeling industry has set impossible expectations for the female appearance, only valuing an hourglass figure, a slim waist, a large bust, and curvy hips. Without these things, a woman, according to beauty standards, is not beautiful, but ugly, worthless and fat, and therefore, she is worthless to society.

“The Woman’s Advocate” is based entirely on this idea of unrealistic beauty standards, as well as their destructive consequences. It is a villanelle composed entirely in iambic pentameter, with variation in metrics, and is formatted into five tercets with a concluding quatrain. The title, “The Woman’s Advocate,” is an ironic reference to the industry itself, with the “woman’s advocate” being not an advocate at all, but a powerful critic that is impossible to please. The title also establishes the ambiguous symbolism of the speaker’s audience, “you.”

Before discussing the smaller literary techniques used in this villanelle, I must first explain the meaning of “you,” which is purposefully left to have ambiguous meaning throughout the poem. There are four “you” meanings, and they are as follows: the first “you” is the physical scale upon which the speaker stands, measuring her weight; the second “you” is society as a whole, along with its beauty standards; the third “you” is the speaker herself, both in the past and in the present; and the fourth “you” is her eating disorder, bulimia. These meanings may appear together or may be difficult to distinguish from one another. This was done purposefully in order to emphasize how interwoven a woman’s sense of self-worth and societal expectations can become, eventually unifying as one. A woman’s own identity and self-esteem may become sp lost in her search for the “perfect body” that she can no longer distinguish society’s criticisms from her own.

This emphasis on appearance is depicted in the two refrain lines. The first line has different literal meanings in the poem, but the words remain exactly the same (except in the concluding quatrain): “I step; you are disappointed, I see.” The phrase “I see” continues to emphasize the value of appearance and the inability to be satisfied with one’s self-image. The second refrain line again emphasizes this inability to be satisfied with diction and a rhetorical question: “I failed and I know it; don’t you agree?” The word “failed” indicates that the speaker tried to be “beautiful” and was unsuccessful, and the rhetorical question emphasizes her need for society’s approval as well as her insecurity.

The first tercet introduces the speaker’s present situation, a situation which she has experienced several times in the past: weighing herself on a scale. The first metrical foot, “I step,” is a spondee, emphasizing the importance of weight. Weight is the only thing left that the speaker has control over, as suggested by the use of the spondee. For the remainder of the line, the speaker retreats into her insecurities and addresses the audience, valuing the audience’s opinion more than her own. This is portrayed through syntax, where the phrase “you are disappointed” is placed before “I see.” The second line of the first tercet, “The number drops, but never satisfied,” is still referring to the physical scale upon which the speaker stands. However, the second phrase, “but never satisfied,” as well as the words “disappointed” and “failed” in the other lines, utilizes diction to emphasize the negative consequences on her mental health. 

The first tercet introduces the topic by combining the past and the present, where the speaker stands on the scale yet again, still unsatisfied with her weight. The second tercet brings the reader to the speaker’s present career: modeling. She is physically walking on a runway, where “striking lights and shooting cameras blind” her as she “walk[s], stop[s], and turn[s], [her] head held high.” The words “striking” and “shooting” use diction to compare the runway to a war scene, also comparing the lethal effects of war to the harmful effects of modeling. The use of alliteration in the second line, “head held high,” emphasizes the irony in this statement. Holding one’s head high typically indicates pride, but the speaker has lost all of her dignity and self-worth, instead holding her head high because she is being paid to, because she must; because she has no choice. She must look pretty and dignified despite having no self-esteem left. The third line of this tercet, the first refrain line, has changed meaning, where instead of stepping on a scale, the speaker is now stepping and walking on a runway stage. Her insecurities have been brought into the open world, for all of society to see, no longer confined to a bathroom. The “you” is not only society and its expectations, but the highest fashion executives, the most critical critics, and the speaker herself. They have melded into one “you,” marking the first instance of identity loss. Their opinion is her opinion.

The third tercet brings the reader into the past, where the speaker reflects on how her insecurities began when she “turned thirteen.” The use of slant rhyme here emphasizes her desire for perfection but being unable to achieve it. The speaker addresses “you” again in the second line of this tercet, saying she stopped loving “you…/When you pushed pain down my throat.” This phrase is an allusion to bulimia, an eating disorder where a person often binge eats and guiltily purges herself after. The alliteration in “pushed pain” emphasizes how harmful and devastating modern beauty standards can be. 

The fourth tercet brings the reader from the past back to the present runway, where the speaker cannot breathe. The oxymoron in the phrase “deafening silence” emphasizes the inner conflicts that the speaker faces, and the en dash at the end of the first line creates a dramatic pause, like she is literally unable to breathe at this moment. This suspenseful effect works in tandem with the synecdoche in the second line, where her weak knees are used to represent her whole body, including her physical and mental state.

The reader is brought to the past once again in the fifth tercet. The speaker accuses “you” of killing her “dream,” a metonymy for her identity, as careers and aspirations are typically closely associated with one’s identity and sense of self. This tercet also employs an allusion to Genesis, where the serpent, “slithering from the tree,” persuades Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, causing her and Adam to be banished from the Garden of Eden. The second line, where the speaker “resisted,” refers to Eve’s initial distrust of the evil serpent but “failed” to resist and succumbed to temptation. The speaker has lost her innocence, just like Adam and Eve. The “you” in this tercet again has double meaning: society’s beauty expectations and the speaker’s personified eating disorder. The en dash at the end of the first line indicates the continuing effects of this evil serpent (to which society and her eating disorder are compared) into the present time.

The concluding quatrain brings together the past and the present, which were broken apart after the first tercet. The speaker is in the present for the first line, “pos[ing] for you and the paparazzi,” and this imagery emphasizes the importance of appearance. She is in both the past and present when she forces herself to vomit in the second and third lines: “Later, you knock, but it says occupied;/All gone; you are disappointed in me.” Here is another allusion to the eating disorder, except now the speaker has nothing left in her stomach. In addition to this literal meaning of the phrase “all gone,” the speaker has figuratively lost all of her own identity. This is further emphasized by the second variation in this refrain line: “I see” has been changed to “in me.” Appearance no longer describes her: it defines her. The last line of the villanelle concludes the poem with the haunting rhetorical question, “But I look so pretty; don’t you agree?” This line again emphasizes the speaker’s insecure need for approval and the high price of appearance.

The concluding quatrain can also be read with a different, more dramatic interpretation. In this second interpretation, “posing” refers to the placement of the speaker’s body in her coffin, and the “paparazzi” refers to the attendees of her funeral. The “knocking” on the “occupied” door is an allusion to her coffin, which is occupied by her body, and the phrase “all gone” indicates that she has died. The disappointment in the third line ironically refers to the glorifying effect after a historical figure dies, where the public has a natural tendency to only remember the good things that person did despite the moral sins or illegal acts they may have committed. In the final line, the speaker’s question, “But I look so pretty, don’t you agree?” is in reference to a dead person’s outfit is typically strategically chosen in order to make the person look better and to send them into the afterlife with good standing. This question is also the most haunting line in the entire poem, where the speaker carries the insecurities about her appearance to her grave, emphasizing how society’s impossible beauty expectations never end, even beyond death.

Where WGSS Stands Right Now

by Sophia Garbarino, August 13, 2020

At first, WGSS (Women’s and Gender Studies) may seem like an irrelevant waste of time and resources. But it’s actually one of the few fields out there that can truly help us solve the numerous complex social, political, and economic issues that plague all modern societies. Because it challenges traditional ways of thinking and stereotypes ingrained in our ways of life, WGSS is now more relevant than ever, and it must continue to be available so that our students can learn the crucial critical thinking skills needed to succeed in today’s work environment.

Modern technology has certainly made it more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, and even fact from fact. We so often immediately believe what we see to be true that we fail to recognize the underlying factors that complicate what is actually factual. For instance, the epistemologies in America are quite Euro-centric; even our World History classes involve an American activity or perspective in some way. We accept this because we are raised with it. But there are countless other frameworks at play, such as socially constructed gender norms, institutionalized racism and xenophobia, and even traditionally unnoticed ableism. 

Studying the intersectionality of these issues is essential to understanding how to solve them. For example, as Evelyn Nakano Glenn argues in “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation,” one simply cannot analyze race and gender as entirely separate categories. They continuously influence each other, especially in the United States, which has a high degree of national diversity. They also affect social and economic structures, as Angela Davis points out in “Population Control and Reproductive Rights:” “Inside the United States today, enormous numbers of people of color—and especially racially oppressed youth—have become part of a pool of permanently unemployed workers” (Davis). To fight issues such as poverty, homelessness, workplace sexual harassment and abuse, immigration rights, and LGBTQ+ rights, we must study and analyze these fields together.


Works Cited

Davis, Angela. “Reproductive Rights.” An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World, edited by Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006, pp. 103-107.

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. “Settler Colonialism as Structure: A Framework for Comparative Studies of U.S. Race and Gender Formation.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 52-72.