Every year we’re learning more about what women are capable of, physically. The myths about female weakness—that our reproductive systems are fragile and dictate that we not be too active, that we have no endurance, that we can’t do anything requiring upper-body strength—have slowly but surely been shot down during the last century. But that doesn’t mean people don’t buy into those myths. They do. Girls are still treated differently than boys—in the classroom, in the gym, and, eventually when they grow up, in the boardroom. They’re not expected to be as competitive. Aggression is frowned upon in girls, yet lots of jobs require a certain amount of aggression. The whole notion of “femininity”—which is really just a way of acting and thinking, not some God-given quality—requires girls to put unhealthy restraints on themselves. It disempowers them. It keeps them from really going for it. When it comes to their bodies, it makes them fear getting “too big,” or “too strong.” So they prevent themselves from developing fully. They actually stand in their own way because they’re taught that they should. Who’s teaching them? Read The Frailty Myth and find out.
Tiffeny Milbrett & Colette Dowling, The Frailty Myth: Redefining The Physical Potential Of Women & Girls
Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating
QotD: “But please can we keep open the option that it doesn’t have to be like this for all of us, forever?”
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.
Below are two articles I spotted recently on poverty in New Zealand. I think it is useful to point this out, as sex industry advocates want us to think that prostitution is ‘necessary’ because of women’s poverty, and that prostitution somehow ‘cures’ women’s poverty (if that were true there would be no poverty by now).
If prostitution was such a great way to make money, wouldn’t all poor women do it? The reality is that prostitution is most profitable for the pimps and brothel keepers, and a very small number of young, conventionally attractive, relatively privileged women, for a short time only; other women end up there out of desperation, deeper desperation, it seems, than having to rent a garage to live in.
Schoolgirls in New Zealand are skipping class because they cannot afford sanitary pads and are being forced to use phonebooks, newspapers and rags to make-do during menstruation.
In the last three months local charity KidsCan distributed 4,000 sanitary items to more than 500 low-income schools nationwide after they were given a NZ$25,000 (USD$18,000) government grant to begin to address the issue.
Because KidsCan buy in bulk, they are able to purchase packs of sanitary products for around NZ$1 – instead of the NZ$4-8 that supermarkets usually charge. Sanitary products are taxed in New Zealand.
Vaughan Couillault, principal of Papatoetoe high school in south Auckland, said it was a “serious concern” that many of his 700 female students from lower socio-economic backgrounds could not afford the products to manage their monthly cycle hygienically.
This year KidsCan started supplying the school with sanitary items, but before that his staff would make regular trips to the supermarket to buy sanitary supplies, and charge female students 50 cents to cover costs. According to Couillault, at other low-income schools in New Zealand teachers buy students sanitary products using their own money.
Sarah Kull, a school nurse at Papatoetoe, said since the 50 cent charge was removed the number of students approaching her for sanitary products had increased to around 10-15 pupils each day. Half of them needed one-off items and half were stocking up to cater for their entire period.
“There is a shame factor involved in asking for help with such an intimate part of your life, and I think the girls we see approaching us are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Kull.
“A lot of girls are too embarrassed to ask. We also have about the same number each day come to us for pain relief related to their periods. Paracetamol is cheaper than pads but there is still a cost involved, which for many students from low-income families is unmanageable.”
Labour MP Louisa Wall is spear-heading the campaign to draw attention to school-age girls who can’t afford the average NZ$5-15 (USD$3-10) a month for sanitary items. She has also been told of women in hospital who have been unable to access sanitary items, and that many female university students struggle to pay to cover their periods.
“Local schools started coming to me and saying: ‘We need help with this’. Girls are skipping class and sports because they can’t afford the sanitary items that make their periods a normal part of life,” she said.
“This issue is still taboo and we really need to start addressing it because sanitary items are not a luxury – they are a basic necessity. Not being able to afford them is holding many girls and women back, and I am especially concerned about them missing out on education because of their periods.”
Should we consider schoolgirls in New Zealand to be at a disadvantage compared to the girls in various African countries, were ‘dating’ a ‘sugar daddy’ in return for money for basic essentials like sanitary pads is ‘normal’ (remember, ‘normal’ here doesn’t mean ‘right’ or ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’, it just means commonplace and unremarkable)? Are these schoolgirls being ‘oppressed’ by the age limit of 18 to enter the sex industry? Remember, sex industry advocates are pushing for the decriminalisation of the commercial sexual exploitation of children as well (this is something I want to write about in more detail, I have seen a sex industry advocate use the rationalisation that ‘children are poor too’).
Hundreds of families in Auckland are living in cars, garages and even a shipping container as a housing crisis fuelled by rising property prices forces low-income workers out of private rental accommodation.
Charity groups have warned that, as the southern hemisphere winter approaches, most of the premises have no electricity, sewage or cooking facilities.
“This is not people who haven’t been trying. They have been trying very hard and still they’re failing,” said Campbell Roberts of The Salvation Army, who has worked in South Auckland for 25 years.
“A few years ago people in this situation were largely unemployed or on very low-incomes. But consistently now we are finding people coming to us who are in work, and have their life together in other ways, but housing is alluding them.”
Auckland’s housing market is one of the most expensive in the world, with property prices increasing 77.5% over the last five years (this growth has now slowed), and the average house price fetching over NZ$940,000 (£440,000), according to CoreLogic, New Zealand.
Combined with low interest rates, rising migration, near full occupancy of state housing in South Auckland, and minimal wage rises, the pressure on many low to middle income earners has become too much to bear.
Some families are now forced to choose between having a permanent roof over their heads, or feeding themselves and their children.
Jenny Salesa, a Labour MP in the South Auckland suburb of Otara, says Maori and Pacific peoples are overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of Auckland’s housing crisis, and she has people coming to her office every day begging for help.
“People are living in garages with ten family members and paying close to NZ$400 for the privilege,” said Salesa.
“People are ashamed their lives have come to this, and they try to hide. But you can tell which garages are occupied – there are curtains on the windows, small attempts to make it a home. And on the weekends, in the park, there can be up to fifty cars grouped together, with people sleeping in them.”
Salesa estimates nearly 50% of people asking for her help in finding a home are in paid employment, and many families have two parents working and are still unable to make ends meet.
Nobody knows exactly how many people are living rough in Auckland, but common estimates range in the hundreds.
Darryl Evans, CEO of Mangere Budgeting in South Auckland, says on some roads in South Auckland every second house has additional accommodation erected – be it an occupied garage, a portable cabin with a chemical toilet, or tents pitched on the front and back lawn.
“Up until a few years ago, a family member might let you camp in the garage at no cost, as a temporary set-up,” said Evans.
“But now landlords have cottoned on to how desperate people are, and are renting out garages or Portakabins for hundreds of dollars. Our food bank – every food bank in Auckland – is under the most pressure its ever been.”
Evans has also seen many families get trapped in a cycle of a gradual migration south, chasing cheaper rents, but causing huge unrest for children, who are unable to access regular schooling, health care or social support networks.
“People living in these situations are feeling huge shame,” said Evans.
Last week the New Zealand government announced NZ$41.1m for emergency housing, but with winter mere weeks away, charities believe any assistance will come too late for most.
“We warned the government six or seven years ago that a housing crisis was looming,” said Roberts.
“Successive governments have ignored our warnings, and now look where we are. The worst homelessness I have seen in 25 years. You might be able to survive like this in the summer, but you can’t in winter. You just can’t live like this in a New Zealand winter.”
Let me describe to you what kind of world gender abolitionists actually dream about:
When a child would be born it’s biological sex, being an actual physical reality, would be noticed but not a single assumption regarding the child’s personality would be made based on it.
Growing up, children would be free to chose what toys and clothes they prefer. If they want to play with toy trucks or dolls, it would be fine either way. If they want to dress comfortably or in frilly colorful dresses, it would be fine. Regardless of the child’s biological sex.
Certain personality traits would not be encouraged in members of one sex and discouraged in the other. Females would be free to be strong, brave and assertive and males would not be shamed for being shy and soft spoken.
No female child would be called a tomboy and no male child would be called a sissy. No kid would ever be bullied for what we in our gendered world call “gender expression”.
When children would reach puberty they would still be free to dress how they want. Females would not be pressured to wear clothes that reveal their bodies and males would not be shamed if they chose to. Everybody would have a free choice of accessories, which would not be categorized as “men’s” or “women’s” but people could should whichever they liked. Or chose to not wear accessories at all if that’s what they are more comfortable with.
Females would not be pressured to keep their bodies slim, soft and hairless. Males would not be pressured to be athletic and muscular. Expectations of femininity and masculinity upon the body would not exist and affect negatively people’s relationship with their own body.
Everyone could choose a career without fearing stigmatization within that particular field because of their biological sex. The most important thing would be competence and not what someone has between their legs.
Domestic work would not be considered “women’s work” and would be shared equally between the sexes.
Biological sex would only be thought about when relevant. Like for example in regards to issues surrounding sexual activity, reproduction or treatment of medical conditions related to a person’s biological sex.
And everyone would be free to be themselves without ever having to worry about gender expectations. Nobody would feel the need to repress certain parts of their personality and exaggerate others in order to fit into some gender role that is being forced on them.
Gender abolitionism is not about restricting people’s choices but about giving them greater freedom.
Burningax (original no longer available)
Lady*Fest, a feminist festival scheduled to take place June 22nd – 25th in Heidelberg, Germany, has declared the clitoris “exclusionary.”
The festival, which features workshops, lectures, and art, had initially planned to include topics like, “clitoris/glitzoris” and “masturbation” as part of their art exhibition, but protocol documents from the last planning meeting now explain that the clitoris is “problematic,” because it refers to female anatomy.
The festival organizers have stated that, due to being a “queer Lady*fest,” it shouldn’t empower “only certain groups,” such as those with clitorises, and that the festival will not be “excluding any groups” by referencing female anatomy. Lady*fest claims these actions embody their policy, which translates to, “be tender to all genders,” and that being mindful of how female anatomy offends people will provide “a safer space to all human beings by applying awareness.”
Naida Pintul, a radical feminist and former organizer of Lady*fest who lives in Heidelberg, is critical of the decision. She told me via email, “Female anatomy has become a taboo.”
“This is a postmodern version of the same old hatred of female bodies and their biology. Once again, we are not supposed to talk about the reality and the consequences of having our female reproductive organs.”
Initially, the decorating of “vulva cupcakes” was planned as an activity to celebrate and destigmatize female anatomy. This event was also cancelled by festival planners on account of vulva cupcakes not being “inclusive” of everyone’s identity.
“Maybe vulvas and vaginas would be seen as less disgusting/offensive if we called them non-penises,” Pintul quipped.
Similarly, Scripps College was compelled to shut down their “project vulva” last year, an event that invited women to decorate cupcakes to resemble vulvas, as the cupcakes were deemed “violent to transwomen.”
Lady*fest is now considering having “gender star” (*) cupcakes available to replace the vulva cupcakes. (A “gender star” refers to an asterisk placed after gendered words in order to convey that the category includes anyone who identifies with it.)
Lady*Fest itself uses an asterisk in its official name. But, under the circumstances, the asterisk doesn’t feel all that inclusive. Rather, it feels more like a disclaimer that reads: “Lady*Fest (*Not actually for ladies with gross, offensive vulvas and clitorises).”
when your little girl
asks you if she’s pretty
your heart will drop like a wineglass
on the hardwood floor
part of you will want to say
of course you are, don’t ever question it
and the other part
the part that is clawing at
will want to grab her by her shoulders
look straight into the wells of
her eyes until they echo back to you
you do not have to be if you don’t want to
it is not your job
both will feel right
one will feel better
she will only understand the first
when she wants to cut her hair off
or wear her brother’s clothes
you will feel the words in your
mouth like marbles
you do not have to be pretty if you don’t want to
it is not your job
I look like a woman but actually I identify as a human being.
In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes the way in which refeeding programmes imposed on anorexia sufferers betray a desire to “normalise” women not just physically, but socially: “The general consensus is that the patient has recovered when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved.” Yet, she goes on to point out, “if the body protest statement could but be read – be it one of fatness or thinness – it would be seen to be one of the few ways that women can articulate their internal experience.” I look back on the force-feeding to which I was subjected and see in it a type of conversion therapy. Womanhood, I had decided, was not for me. I sought to roll back puberty and remain stuck in time. The medical profession said no, you must go forward. And so I did, but it hurt because the world I went into remained one in which femaleness and personhood are not always permitted to co-exist.
This is one of the reasons why I am a feminist. I do not identify as a woman but it remains the social class into which, by virtue of having a female body, I have been shoved. I do not think I am the problem. I do not think my body is the problem. Still, as this body still confines me – as it is me – it remains a site of personal struggle.
Speaking to BBC Radio Women’s Hour, clinical psychologist Dr Bernadette Wren describes how “we live in a world where people alter their bodies, surgically or otherwise, and this freedom is available for people as they get older”:
Maybe we just have to be acknowledging that that is a liberty that people have, that these things are possible, technologically, and people will avail themselves of those things. It’s not really for us to approve or disapprove.
Wren is referring to the fact that rapidly increasing numbers of children and young people, most of them female, are being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. As far as she is concerned, it is neither a moral nor a political issue. If female people are unhappy with their bodies then they should have the right to change them – albeit if, and only if, the problem is located internally, with no seepage into an outside world riven with gendered power imbalances. I find such a viewpoint not only naïve, but somewhat terrifying.
For a long time I have felt a parallel can be made between eating disorders and gender confirmation surgery as forms of self-harming body modification. It’s not a comparison I make lightly, just for the hell of it. Indeed, every time I’ve made it, I’ve had to put up with the ritual public Shaming of the TERF, alongside the trivialisation of a condition which led to several long-term hospitalisations against the “realness” of true gender dysphoria. It’s been suggested to me that anorexia is an attempt to “express your feels” as opposed to the real suffering of “having a skin that metaphorically itches all the time” (as if anyone who’s ever had anorexia would not understand that!). A piece I wrote about the inappropriateness of positioning female body hatred within the context of “cis-ness” got me to Level 2 on the Blockbot. According to the official narrative, anorexia is at best mental illness, at worst vanity; transness, on the other hand, is politically radical, unquestionably authentic and quite incomprehensible to “the cis”.
A woman who starves puberty into remission is sick, so sick you can section her, decree her officially incapable of knowing what her own body needs. One who drugs puberty into remission is not sick; she is, on the contrary, a mystic emissary from Planet Gender. Her – his, their – word is law. A woman who, like me, tries to kill herself because no amount of starvation will make her breasts fully disappear is considered mad. One who merely threatens to kill herself should no surgeon be willing to slice off her breasts for her – well, that person is merely a victim of medical gatekeeping.
Why is this?
Why is breast binding an acceptable form of self-harm when self-induced vomiting is not? Why is the permanent removal of female flesh so much more palatable than what may only be a temporary withering? Why is one person’s visualisation of their breastless “true” self authentic and another’s merely delusional? Above all, why is a rejection of female flesh only acceptable in those who reject any identification with womanhood altogether?
The difference is not in degrees of pain and suffering, nor does it lie in an ability to “prove” that one’s beliefs are real. The difference is political. What matters is not how much you hate the skin you’re in, but how you frame it within a broader context of gender and sex-based inequalities.
Women like me are told that the political framing of our own dysphoria makes us dangerous and evil. Women who take a different tack are permitted to exit womanhood only if they leave their politics at the door. So many women, expressing so much unhappiness, and we think it progressive to ignore the social context. If your breasts offend you, chop them off! But whom does the female body really offend? And when do we get to be human, all of us, every part, every single inch of flesh?
Walker has come up against a fair amount of hostility while promoting Dietland. During a live radio interview in Australia, the novelist Will Self, also a guest on the show, went full werewolf on her. “He basically derailed my whole interview,” Walker says, with an upset sort of laugh. He didn’t just trot out the usual “fat is unhealthy” stuff, but helpfully mansplained that humans are evolutionarily programmed to find fat people ugly. Self was being so abrasive, Walker recalls, that after the interview another guest asked if she was OK.
The run-in wasn’t the first time Walker faced overt abuse from a Brit. She lived in the UK for seven years, on and off, and says: “London was the most fat-shaming place I’ve been in my entire life. It was on a scale like nothing I’ve ever experienced.” In the US, Walker says, fatphobia would manifest itself in subtle ways: she’d find herself excluded from things. In London, however, strangers would say horrible things to her face. “I’ve lived in New York, Paris, Boston and the western US – and that just doesn’t happen.”
One reason, Walker suggests, is that “women’s bodies were on display in London like I’ve never seen. In the phonebooths with those pictures of naked women, and on Page 3, and in those tabloid newspapers with half-naked women on the cover. It was like the whole city was a red-light district.” She contrasts this to her native US, where “we have fashion magazines with scantily clad women but you don’t see those kind of porny images in public as much. I felt part of the reason I got harassed in London was because there were messages everywhere that women’s bodies are public property.”
Walker channelled her London experience into a chapter of Dietland in which Jennifer forces British tabloids to feature naked men on their covers. “London was being renovated,” writes the author, “and the wallpaper covering every surface of the city was no longer decorated with women.”