Suddenly, Ed Miliband became a meme. In a good way.
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From Nate Silver to #Milifans: welcome to the age of political fandom

Whether it’s political fanboys who geek out over polling data or teenage girls photoshopping flower crowns onto Ed Miliband’s head, digital excitement is the new electioneering frontier.

The past few days have seen what’s likely to be the biggest moment of levity in the entire 2015 general election (and if you think this thing has been dragging on, spare a thought for me and my fellow Americans, eighty-one weeks from our next general election and currently wading through hundreds of thinkpieces about the existential significance of Hillary Clinton’s order at a Mexican fast-food chain). This was the week of the #milifandom: flower crowns and earnest bewilderment, the meme-creating internet colliding with weary political journalists, passionate young people who lack the right to vote finding a voice and a platform. It was the week when the perpetually-awkward Labour leader found himself at the centre of something literally no one anticipated: people on the internet liked him – a lot. Like, a lot.

The general public learned about Ed Miliband’s burgeoning fandom in a BuzzFeed post on Tuesday. The article shed light on a new and relatively surprising surge of collective public interest in Miliband, who in recent days has managed to attract an army of teenage fans. The Milifandom appears to be made up of mostly underage girls with other popular fannish affiliations – Tom Hiddleston, Sherlock, and One Direction, to name a few. (Note that these are not the only sorts of subjects that attract fandoms and fangirls, as I’ve seen widely reported in the media; for example, there are more than 18,000 fandoms on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan fiction-hosting site, and yes, “Political RPF – UK 20th-21st c.,” stories about current or recent British political figures romantically paired nearly every way you can imagine, is one of them.)

The Milifandom is very new – no more than a week old for most – and by their own admission, it began as an ironic gesture for a lot of its members. But for others, they’ve developed a genuine interest in the leader and in Labour’s manifesto, which they celebrated fandom-style, with a flurry of tweets and hashtags and photoshopping flower crowns (a meme that’s stretched across all sorts of fandoms for the past few years) onto Miliband’s head. At the source of the Milifandom was Abby, a seventeen-year-old who at one point declined media inquiries because she was revising for her exams. But she told BuzzFeed:

We just want to change opinions so people don’t just see the media’s usual distorted portrayal of him – and actually see him for who he is. Ed is just a great guy and how many other politicians have a fandom? 0. We’re just waiting for him to acknowledge it bc it’s kinda sad when he only ever sees people write mean things about him.

Deep in my cynical, fandom-defending heart (even semi-ironic fandoms!) I was certain that this story would completely backfire – we were off to a rough start when BuzzFeed used phrases like “imagine the kind of all-consuming hormonal hysteria” to describe girls liking things, which I hear and bristle at on a regular basis. But the resulting meme-fest “CoolEdMiliband”, in which Miliband’s historically uncool face was photoshopped onto the bodies of pop culture and fannish icons (James Bond, Harry Styles, Benedict Cumberbatch) was fun – even the irony embedded in these images was gently positive, geek Miliband elevated to lovable geek Miliband. By the same token, the wholesale rejection of the “Cameronettes” movement, started by a 21-year-old male politics student who at one point pretended to be a 13-year-old girl (sounds like a charmer!) showed that you can’t fake this stuff – even before he’d revealed it to be “a joke”, literally no one wanted to join the Cameron fandom.

But the best reaction came from Miliband himself: Labour responded to what might-have-been mocking interest with grace and good faith, tweeting at Abby to welcome her to the party. On the radio, Miliband said, “I’m definitely blushing now…I certainly wouldn’t claim to be cool... I’ve never been called that.” It echoed back to the delightful story that circulated the other day, when he was taught, tried out, and abandoned the phrase YOLO in the space of a single interview question. In an election where some argue the only party leader with real “personality” is also the one constantly defending his party against charges of casual racism, this sheepish, blushing, gawky, tries-too-hard-but-we-love-him-anyway Ed Miliband was suddenly shining bright. (I was even feeling it from across the ocean. And I have been looking for a new and fresh fandom to get excited about…)

There’s something crucial at work here, though: Miliband – or, at least, the Labour Party more broadly – might be inspiring actual non-ironic passion in teens, but they won’t be able to vote for him. Abby told BuzzFeed: “I can’t have a say in what happens in my own country! And labour is why I love Ed, I’m a party member and I think they truly are the way forward. If it was up to them, I would allowed a voice.” That disconnect is interesting: we can see a palpable shift in his public perception in the past 48 hours (teen girls think this guy is cool! That makes him more cool by default? More likeable, at least) but it remains to be seen how much that will affect the voting public. We can see the new means and channels that young women (and for that matter, not-so-young women – and men! – as well) use to network with each other online, but for many of them, despite all the passion, we can’t fully see their impact.

Despite the positive-if-bemused reactions that seemed to characterise much of the media and general public’s response, classic teen-girl hate inevitably cropped up. BuzzFeed wasn’t the only news outlet to use the word “hysterical”. Some articles crept towards an extreme mocking tone. Comments sections veered, unsurprisingly, towards cess-pool territory on some sites. One reader wrote, “Are these the same teenage girls who suffer from anorexia and bulimia, routinely go hysterical over manufactured boy bands that do not include any musical instruments, and frequently self harm?” One teenager whose image was widely circulated tweeted, “So turns out people stop taking your political views seriously if your selfies with a jokey caption are in a buzzfeed article, thanks.” She continued, “It's not just that its portrays us in a bad light, it's damaging for Labour support; we know how the general public feels about teenage girls,” and wrote about how unhappy she was to be featured in the original article.

“Proof that teenage girls shouldn't be allowed to vote…” another commenter wrote, and if these girls could vote, if they could actually show up for Miliband at the ballot box, flower crowns and all, I guarantee the discourse would shift dramatically and aggressively in this direction. And really though: is a fangirl getting emotionally invested in a politician all that different than political fanboys who geek out over endless poll numbers and stats?

Much has been made of Labour’s attempts to run an American presidential-style campaign, at the heart of which lies popular appeal, even the cult of personality. The Barack Obama fandom – still going strong across social media even as his presidency draws to a close – lacks a name as catchy as Milifandom. But his fans made up the base of his supporters through both campaigns. Women, people of colour, LGBT people, a broad and inclusive group that skewed far younger than the angry old gun-toting white guys who always turn up for the Republicans: these are the people that spread the digital love for Obama, in the way they spread digital love for everything else they’re into. Accusations of vapidity ran wild: they valued style over substance. As though enthusiasm and fluency with social media invalidate the seriousness of a young person’s politics.

Anyone who’s surprised by enthusiasm teenage girls have for political issues probably hasn’t spent much time around teenage girls – and certainly doesn’t spend much time in the social media spaces teen girls occupy. Politics on Tumblr can turn into a punch line at times, but there’s no other place online as progressive and engaged: it’s a social network full of women on a mission to educate themselves and others and to collectively fight against the injustices of the world. You can spread a political message with a lecture, or you can do it with a bit of fun and a few animated gifs – or, for maximum impact, you can employ both. The language of the social web doesn’t change the substance of its ideas, no matter how foreign these posts might look to you.

It might have all just been a light-hearted joke that led to a great set of memes. Or it might be a way for young people to engage with politics, on their own terms, in their own language. It certainly gave Ed Miliband a chance to become a little more “relatable” – and a little (lot) more charmingly embarrassed that people fancy him. If social media is a democratising force, then kudos to the leader that can embrace it on its own terms – and take on all our heart-eye emojis with genuine gratitude.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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Anorexia, breast binding and the legitimisation of body hatred

Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering.

In 1987 I underwent the first of three hospitalisations for anorexia. I was force-fed via a nasogastric tube. This led me to gain a significant amount of weight, which I hated. Furthermore, it made my overall psychological state not better, but worse.

Upon discharge I lost the weight again and in the years that followed I tried to play a game of keeping myself just thin enough to manage my anxiety, not so thin as to be coerced into further treatment. I was not always successful. I used to fantasise about the peace I would experience if only people were to leave me alone. The expectations they had for my life, my body, were not my own.

Decades later I have not come round to other people’s point of view. I still think force-feeding was violent, traumatising, if not downright abusive. I still reject the idea that one might somehow, by sheer force of will, learn to accept a body in which one does not feel at home. The portrayal of anorexia as some invading enemy, or a sly, toxic friend, is one I find wholly ridiculous. There was no battle between the “real” me and a manipulative, alien “Ana”. Every thought I thought, every feeling I felt, was mine.

Should this sound like the start of The Pro-Ana Manifesto, I would like to stress that anorexia robbed me of a great deal. It almost killed me. Perhaps, if I had been “left in peace”, I would not be around to write this today. Yet there was no simple cure, no demon to kill. There was, in the end, no Ana, no skinny mean-girl shadow stalking me, whispering in my ear. There was only me. There was only ever me and a world for which I desperately wanted – and still want – to be the right shape.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes how recovery from anorexia is seen by many as having been achieved “when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved”. It is not just a matter of “being healthy” or “looking normal”; gaining body fat means, for a woman, gaining hips and breasts and having to contend with the gendered expectations that accompany this. A female with hips and breasts has a job to do, a role to perform, both sexually and reproductively. I did not want this role. It was easier to change my body than to ask the world to accommodate my humanity.

There is a way in which I understand force-feeding and coercive eating disorder management as a form of conversion therapy, an attempt to impose gender conformity on an unwilling subject. The problem is not the anorexia sufferer’s refusal to eat; she is absolutely correct in assuming that by gaining weight, she will be expected to give up something very personal and meaningful to her. “I have gained weight, but lost myself,” writes Nancy Tucker of her own recovery. “How can I explain that inside I remain an anorexic, but trapped in a fat suit?” How can one be seen as human being while looking like a woman? The anorexic must struggle with this conundrum, at least if she wants to live, but it cannot be hers alone to solve.

I first became ill in 1987, aged 11. I’d been an early developer, already wearing a bra at primary school. I did not want to be that person, the fat girl, the slag, the one who got her breasts groped, her bra snapped, pushed into corners, the one who ended up playing that role anyhow, because it’s less shameful to be a slut in a slut’s body than it is to be a blushing eleven-year-old prude with tits. I tried it for a while, a good eight months, then I gave up and stopped eating. Such a pattern is not uncommon. Eating disorders are more prevalent in those of us who experience an early onset of puberty. I knew, absolutely and without question, that the body I had acquired was not the one I was supposed to have. I wanted to be one of the skinny, straight girls, the ones whose bodies were indistinguishable from those of the boys. Better still, I wanted to be a boy, to never have to gain hips and breasts, or to bleed, again.

Had I been born thirty years later, starvation may not have felt like my only option. By which I do not mean that the situation for pubescent girls has improved. My groping male classmates interpreted female bodies through the lens of Playboy and page three; the harder, faster, crueller world of online porn was yet to come. I mean I could have said I was not a girl. I did not feel like a girl. I was not a girl, not that girl, not that bleeding, stinking body I had become. It would not have been a lie. If I were going through what I went through thirty years ago today, perhaps I would not have needed to flee puberty all alone. I could have asked for help. Instead of having to face down my force-feeding adversaries, I could have found adults willing to support me in my efforts to sculpt a body more in keeping with my sense of self.

For instance, recent advice given to UK schools on how to accommodate the needs of transgender children includes information on chest-binding. According to Cornwall Council, binding can be “hot, uncomfortable and restrictive – but very important to [pupils’] psychological wellbeing”. Teachers are nonetheless told to remain aware of the risk of “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting”. Lancashire County Council offers the following advice:

“If you have young people who bind their chests, monitor them carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

I’m perfectly aware that one is not supposed to question guidance of this nature. But I think, just for one moment, we should be honest about what we are witnessing. Young people who hate their breasts, absolutely loathe them, would be willing to take a knife to them and slice them off, would be practically suicidal if someone told them that these breasts were with them for life. Young people who know without doubt that their inner selves, their very identities, are wholly incompatible with the ownership of breasts. Young people who, in other words, feel exactly as I did. And instead of challenging this self-hatred – instead of acknowledging the pain (which no one did for me), but also recognising that it is not caused by the body itself – grown adults are accepting this narrative without question. Because it’s easiest. Because yes, a child still suffers, but the ends (not looking female) are deemed to justify the means (physical pain and possible long-term damage).

Pink News recently described the drawing of comparisons between anorexia and certain narratives of transgender experience as “insulting”. It was not made clear who was being insulted, but I’m guessing it was not anorexia sufferers; after all, they’re the mentally ill ones. While I have no desire to get into a long discussion on the arbitrary nature of definitions of sanity, I think it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the cultural, political and gendered meanings of anorexia without going all-out pro-ana and suggesting it is not an illness at all. It is an illness that operates within particular social settings, in response to and interacting with particular cultural influences. “The world gets harder and harder,” writes Hilary Mantel on self-imposed starvation. “There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.”  

The female-to-trans narrative offers a different way of framing the same impossible dilemma. We know that there are countless individuals who have always had this sense of not-belonging. It is now being suggested that contemporary trans politics is granting them to access the language and treatments they have needed all along. But another way of putting it might be that a vocabulary and treatment protocol have been created precisely in order to accommodate rather than challenge the relationship between gender and hatred of one’s own sexed body. What we are seeing remains a symptom, not a cure.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson describes her partner Harry’s experiences of binding:

“Your inability to live in your skin was reaching its peak, your neck and back pulsing with pain all day, all night, from your torso (and hence, your lungs) having been constricted for almost thirty years. You tried to stay wrapped even while sleeping, but by morning the floor was always littered with doctored sports bras, strips of dirty fabric – “smashers” you called them.”

I can easily see myself, aged 14 or 15, reading words like this over and over again, every bit as reverently as I used to read every anorexia memoir I could get my hands on, absorbing every word, feeling ashamed of not being as hardcore, of not having proven myself yet. You still have breasts. You’re not bleeding. Do better. Do more. This is not to question the genuine pain that is being depicted here. At one point Nelson reports her partner’s response to her own lack of comprehension:

“Don’t you get it? you yelled back. I will never feel as free as you do, I will never feel as at home in the world. I will never feel as at home in my own skin. That’s just the way it is, and always will be.”

I don’t know a single long-term anorexia sufferer who has not expressed similar sentiments. And there is no simple response, because it is, in all likelihood, the truth. It is heartbreaking, a tragedy. We can acknowledge the validity of an individual’s suffering without losing sight of the fundamental injustice of it.

It would be wonderful if there were a simple answer to all this. Every day young women are encouraged – berated, almost – to accept their bodies, love their curves, not give a fuck about what men think. It doesn’t work. If it were that easy – if feminism were self-help, little mantras you repeat in your head, one long, extended Dove advert – we’d all be laughing. It’s not. Body positivity messages do not help, even those that do not come with advice on how to get “beautiful underarms” or “age-positive skin”. To really, truly get to the heart of what is wrong with female flesh, why it feels so hateful and alien to so many of us, we need to relate our alienation to the uses and abuses to which this flesh is put. And even then we need to accept that doing so will not necessarily save us as individuals. But the idea that sexed bodies do not match identities due to some innate mismatch – as opposed to the deeply political meanings inscribed upon them – is not just absurd, it is harmful. It leads us to focus only on our bodies and it short-circuits efforts towards long-term political change.

We are reaching a point where even questioning body-hatred is seen as a cruel denial of an individual’s inner self.  I have even seen articles including statements such as “personally, I would feel more empowered in my body […] if I heard that hating your boobs is OK”. How is one supposed to respond to that? ”Well, then, hate away?” Then there is the assumption that women who “consent” to be women – who choose not to bind or change their pronouns – must be so insensitive, so dumb, so politically unengaged as to be pacified by a quick “love your curves” slogan. The truth is that very few female people can accept their bodies as long as ownership of a female body – failure to starve it away, or crush it, or have it surgically corrected – is taken as implicit consent to be treated as a member of the inferior class.

I am not saying “burn your binders”. Forcing people to live in a body where they do not feel at home causes intense, often unbearable suffering. There is no quick fix, perhaps not even a lifetime one. But we need to think hard and keep asking questions, even if these contradict other people’s interpretations of what is possible for them.

We need to accept that an individual’s experience of themselves and their body is an interaction with the world around them. We need to do what we can to create comfort and hope. For women, there is a cost to growing and a cost to staying small. There is pain either way. But please can we keep open the option that it doesn’t have to be like this for all of us, forever? No matter how much it hurts we must at least believe that.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.