“It was easier to say ‘don’t diet, riot!’ when I was a size twelve” (new writing)

January 11, 2013 § 3 Comments


no diet talk

I’m working on a paper that explores feminist approaches to economic justice through the metaphor of that old feminist staple, body image. Economic issues are less well-trodden ground in the feminist canon (with awesome exceptions like Folbre, Waring, Fraser), and I hope to expand my own thinking on economic issues by using some of the wisdom from a more familiar feminist territory, the body.

Sitting on the balcony of a small apartment I share with a friend at university, I drink wine and discuss that feminist staple, body image. The friend I share a drink with is a classic of the student activist scene I belong to: loud, anarchic, bisexual, and, I think, joyously fat. I am naively shocked, therefore, when she tells me that her body shape bothers her: “It was easier to say ‘don’t diet, riot!’ when I was a size twelve”, she states, swigging her beer. The atmosphere becomes confessional. I smile awkwardly at her words, aching with the complexity of it all, and there my memory dissolves into the hazy, warm Newcastle twilight.

My friend’s statement has stayed with me for years. She reminded me that it is easier to make a counter-hegemonic claim when you have no investment in the outcome, and perhaps more importantly, that it is harder to make claims about change to dominant discourses when the counter-hegemonic wisdom does not fit anymore. This is how I felt when I began to wonder, both despite and because of my involvement with trade unions and women’s groups, just why the alternative economic doctrines of social democracy or socialism did not seem to fit anymore. If these doctrines did fit, then their supposed champions were sorely lacking confidence in prosecuting the case. How then, could I fruitfully think about gender and economic change-making, when Stuart Hall’s left melancholy had taken hold with a vengeance? It occurred to me that I was something like a yoyo dieter who could not accept that the old wisdom was not working. I was losing the battle with the weight of the problem of economic inequality, yet I felt compelled to do something – something – to arrest the creeping scales of oppression.

Image is from definatalie’s Flickr photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.

The feminist equivalent of smashing your head on a brick wall: debating abortion on social media

August 29, 2012 § 3 Comments

I had a painful debate about reproductive rights on social media recently. I have to give a major trigger warning for cisgendered privilege on this post: I attempted to correct myself half way through the debate, but frankly on both sides the gender essentialism is pretty bad. I am sorry about that. I realised after writing this how influenced I am by un-reconstructed feminist thought when it comes to repro rights.

Anyway, it started with this image, which I saw on facebook, ‘liked’ and shared, all in about two seconds flat in a pre-coffee blur last Saturday:

What it lacks in nuance it makes up for with cute.

Or maybe it started long ago, in the fucked up political discourse on women’s bodies and reproduction. Either way, start it sure as hell did.

I received this comment from a cis man of my acquaintance, and it was ‘liked’ by another dude too:

Only animals may have an opinion about animal rights. Only slaves may have an opinion about slavery. Etc, etc.

I responded thus:

Yeah it’s overly simplistic etc. I think the point would be better made: Don’t have a vagina? Don’t have an opinion on women’s reproductive rights that impinges on the physical and political rights of those who do.

But it ain’t quite so catchy.

Shockingly, my hilarity did not deter same acquaintance. He came back with:

Even then I don’t think it stands. They could come back and say ‘not a foetus?, don’t suggest killing foetuses’. The debate is over whether there is another party here that needs to be given rights/consideration as well.

Better just to say that it’s important to take seriously the first person testimony of the people who are affected by your actions.

This from me:

No I disagree. I don’t actually think foetuses are separate to the woman’s body, they can’t survive without her (in the vast majority of cases) and the hypothetical anti-choicer’s point is moot. A foetus obviously can’t have an opinion.

I was countered with a comment to the effect that the real debate was over whether people other than women was “affected” by abortion.

I then said:

Yep, and I am saying, and I think what a lot of the pro-choice movement would say, that the pregnant person is affected physically, with major flow ons economically and socially. The foetus is not a person (this is not the same as saying it’s not the subject of grief, a person in people’s minds etc, but it’s not a physical person capable of surviving without the pregnant person’s body). The other family or the male involved is not affected physically and likely not economically. So I think the point is “get out of the way”. This may have political problems, but I think it reflects the reality for most women affected by unwanted pregnancy. Their lives would be a whole lot easier if anti-choicers would get out of the grill of their physical autonomy, so to speak.

Which was responded to thus:

I’m very sympathetic. Not being able to get an abortion is a serious violation of a woman’s autonomy. But to me, ‘birth’ is as arbitrary a line to draw as ‘conception’. Late in a pregnancy I think there are competing considerations that have to be weighed up.

A friend of mine then came in with this gem:

But some of the worst anti-choicers have vaginas… Melinda Tankard Reist. She should have less right to express her vicious opinion than the pro-choice vaginaless.

To which acquaintance said:

Seems dangerous to give people less right to express their opinion when they disagree with you.

A skeptical feminista entered the fray and wrote:

Doesn’t it USUALLY take two people to reproduce? Surely there is another person’s opinion which can be considered?

Two men saw fit to ‘like’ this.

I responded:

Woman’s body is the one that gets pregnant, sorry darl. While someone else’ opinion might be considered, there’s no point to the pro choice movement if it’s not for total autonomy over our bodies. Again, not saying men don’t have feelings or that we as a society aren’t attached to an idea of a baby as the pregnancy comes to term. It’s to make the point that when a foetus can’t survive without the mother, is PART of the mother, not separate from her, the mother should always have the right to decide. It’s not pretty, it’s not painless, but that’s where it’s at if we want to argue that women are fully human ie fully physically autonomous. And that’s me done on this one, folks.

Please note that close to 1000 words had been spilled by this point. I was very tired.

However, then I saw that little red 1 again, and I read this:

“It’s to make the point that when a foetus can’t survive without the mother, is PART of the mother, not separate from her, the mother should always have the right to decide.”

Would the same be true of an adult? i.e. if by bad luck you got attached to another person and couldn’t survive without their support for 9 months, would it be fine for them to not support you/kill you? I would think the point isn’t the dependence but rather that the foetus isn’t conscious.

While I had sworn to bow out, I was sufficiently incensed to crescendo with:

Was intending to be done with this post but find myself with 5 mins spare, so a few things:

Firstly, I should have said earlier that I reject your initial comparison of women’s and animal rights. I think the concept of rights is tied to human life or it’s potential. Wile there are arguments for non-humans to be treated in ethical ways, I don’t think this is the same as a ‘right’.

Similarly while I think children have rights, I reject the notion that a foetus, while it is part of the mother’s body, has rights. While I agree that towards the end of term it gets tricky I think this is largely because of new technologies around premature children. Babies can potentially survive without the mother much earlier.

Finally I think it’s more about dependence and how the particular type of dependence of the foetus on the pregnant person impinges on hir rights. This is not actually the same as your hypothetical example for several reasons: 1) bodily integrity is totally compromised 2) women’s bodies tend to become public property for political and social reasons when pregnant. Both of the reasons impact directly on the pregnant person’s capacity to have full social and political engagement.

That has to trump any other concerns if we are serious about arguing women are fully respected and participating human beings. And this is what most of feminism’s claims rest on, so I think it’s important to defend it fully.

Also I think what tends to get lost in this is that reproductive rights demands run both ways – forcing anyone to have an abortion, or be sterilised, give a child up etc is an anathema to anyone who is serious about reproductive rights.

But it’s not feminists who do these things, it’s the State, usually, as in cases of forced adoption or forced sterilisation. Examples include the recent exposure of forced adoption practices in Australia and the forced sterilisation of trans people in Sweden and elsewhere.

Still reading? You must have a similar martyr complex to me. Helped me clarify my own position though, so in the end no complaints.

On body hair, that trivial beast

April 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

Cross-posted at F Collective.

Recently I’ve been reading about body hair, on one of my favourite corners of the lady-internet, Already Pretty.

I don’t shave at all most of the time. This habit formed sometime at university. During the second year of my arts degree at the University of Newcastle, despite my avowed feminism, I still felt compelled to shave. I saw body hair on women as ugly, and ugly was (is) a powerful thing.

Then I started spending a lot of time with another activist. Let’s call her J. J wasn’t so much an outspoken feminist like me, but she was an amazing part of Newcastle’s environment movement, and a bit of a hippie. J was hairy, and she was beautiful.

I spent a lot of time with J, working on things we both cared about. After a while, I just couldn’t see body hair as ugly anymore, when she was so lovely in every way. I stopped shaving, and found I rather liked my underarm hair, despite the fact that I am very hairy, and dark-haired.

I realised shaving and hair-removal had taken an enormous amount of time, and cost me a lot of money. More importantly, it had always been painful, itchy and uncomfortable.

I came to be glad I had stopped shaving.

Nonetheless, I still find my hairy body a challenge sometimes, in how I dress and in how others perceive me.

Body hair is intimately connected to other aspects of bodily presentation. It impacts what I wear, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. I love art, I have a sometimes grudging love for fashion and clothes, and aesthetics remain important to me, and to how I engage with the world. Different clothing styles play differently with body hair – and since I love to play with aesthetics, I notice. I find that while body hair ‘goes’ with some things I wear, it’s jarring against some of the more vintage styles I like, which are otherwise comfortable and suited to my body type. Body hair seems to clash with the more ‘classic’ dresses I might wear to formal  occasions, like a friend’s wedding or farewell.

Photo by Tinker*Tailor Loves Lalka

These styles and occasions are socially constructed as much as as my body hair or lack thereof. A 50s style dress on a body that isn’t playing by the rules of the traditionally feminine can be seen as ironic, and sometimes I’m ok with that. At other times I wish my body wasn’t a small-scale visual, stylistic and representational battleground.

To say my body’s appearance and indeed, my body, is socially constructed, isn’t a dismissal of the power of the constraints on women’s bodies I’m discussing. As Stephen White (1) puts it, what could be more powerful than social construction? We are all social animals.

My body hair can be an affront to others without me saying a word. Sometimes other women look at me with distaste in the gym. Woman on woman misogyny is very real when it comes to appearance.

At least two of my more serious partners, while not daring to tell me to shave (cue fear of my feminist outrage!) have used their ‘preference’ and social pressure to indicate disapproval. What to do, what to do? I try not to blame myself in these situations, for whatever choice I make (hypocrisy be damned if you want or need to remove hair – feminism teaches us our bodies are our own!). But for all options there are costs, however minor. As I said, it’s physically painful for me to shave, quite apart from how torn it makes me feel.

I think that even though it’s popular to believe we have agency on the body choices front, women’s bodies and body hair are powerfully socially disciplined and constrained. I do have agency when it comes to my body, clearly, as do you. Yet my preferences and those of others are shaped by beauty norms and the beauty industry, an industry that under capitalism needs to sell us stuff to make a profit. This is a powerful motivation to keep people unhappy with their bodies. So I have a constrained agency, and there are social costs for my ‘choices’ not to shave.

That my agency is constrained is the case for me even though my body is privileged in a lot of ways – white, buxom, medium weight, cisgendered. As a white woman, I can be seen as ugly or angry or making a statement if I don’t shave. If I were not white, I might be seen as representative of a ‘people’ who are ‘naturally’ ugly or dirty. For trans women, body hair might be seen as validation of the notion that they are not real woman. The threat of violence in this case is never far away.

One thing I think we can do as feminists, is take responsibility for not shaming other people for their choices about their bodies. This is especially important if we are in a position of looking like the ‘norm’ or are otherwise privileged. Those odd looks and judgements about my body hair are responses I could do without.

I have questions unanswered.

How are feelings about body hair influenced by different social scenes and identities?

What is it like for YOU being feminist and negotiating your body hair?

Hair, elsewhere: Hair/VeilAll locked up, Body hair revisited, There’s a DMZ in my knickers, Quick Question.

(1) White, Stephen K. “As the World Turns: Ontology and Politics in Judith Butler.” Polity 32, no. 2 (December 1, 1999): 155–177.

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