I honestly believe that sisterhood and constant appraisal of whether we are being careful enough with one another as feminists and as women are crucial to any kind of movement for our liberation. Which in fact, makes it feel both essential and incredibly difficult to write this post. As women, we all experience oppression and violence from men, and navigating the trauma we’ve experienced along with trying to forge productive directions in our activism can be absolutely fraught. If I had a pound for every bitter dispute in a feminist space which left one or both parties feeling vulnerable and triggered with regard to their experiences of male violence, I could give Rape Crisis central funding for ten years, which would be quite fitting, really!
However, as careful as we may be, and as respectful as we must be of how other women process their experiences, we have to remember that feminism is a political movement. That we shouldn’t collude with women, despite or even because of their experiences, when their interpretation of those experiences is one which damages other women. We may empathise and we may support, but a woman who feels that other women should be told not to do ‘insert X here’ because it makes her feel safer from further violence is not making a feminist argument. The personal may be political, but our personal, on a singular level, is not THE political. Self blame can be protective for women and may at some points be their only option for dealing with their trauma – this does not mean that we advocate it. I believe that the prevalence of male violence in all our lives means that our experiences are always relevant on a political level, but it doesn’t follow that all of our responses are ones we should suggest to other women, or that we always have a universal understanding of women’s experiences.
This means that contextualising our experiences of male violence is essential for our understanding of the violence that women experience as a class. When used to inform our knowledge, I believe that our experiences can deepen and strengthen that knowledge, but there will always be more for us to learn. On this level it concerns me deeply that lately I’ve seen swathes of women making sweeping assumptions about other women’s experiences of sexual violence. If you’ve ever been involved in a heated debate about rape in a feminist space you might be familiar with the following scenario: Woman A argues with Woman B. Things get heated – neither think the other understands. Woman A discloses that she has experienced rape and therefore she would have thought that Woman B would listen to her. Several of the other women watching wince because they’re aware that Woman B has also experienced rape. It’s a crude example, but it highlights not only the danger of making assumptions but also the fact that in this situation, it’s very likely to be the safety and sisterhood in feminist spaces that makes women feel that others WILL agree, and that if they don’t they can’t possibly have had the same experiences. I wish this was true: it’s not. On a personal level, I was horrified and upset by the discussion over Rape Crisis South London’s campaign against rape pornography – I find the idea that tolerance for it could be feminist deeply upsetting both in terms of ideology and in relation to my own experiences. But clearly, given the vast numbers of articles beginning along the lines of ‘as a rape survivor, I oppose the campaign’, we don’t all agree. And really, why should we? There’s very little more disturbing to me than the idea that having a man’s penis forced inside you without your consent should turn your opinions into the clone of every other woman with that experience. Really, to me it sounds like something a perpetrator would think.
So I disagree with the premise of ‘as a survivor, I believe’ on the basis that one woman can’t speak for such a huge, diverse group of women. I’ve also observed it silence women who feel unable or unwilling to disclose on several occasions. I’m absolutely not opposed to open discussion and disclosures around male violence, far from it. But not every woman discussing her views will be equally able to place her experiences on the table as evidence of her knowledge. Work commitments or needing to keep the information from family or friends can intervene even if a woman wants to disclose. I was raped a few months ago – you won’t know this on Twitter. Why? Well, why on earth would I talk about something so recent on social media? But I’ve certainly been told since then that I’m undermining rape survivor’s experiences with my beliefs on pornography, or witnessed blanket statements made on behalf ‘of survivors’ that I fundamentally disagree with.
Fundamentally, I wonder if the shift towards talking ‘as a survivor’ highlights the way in which that concept has moved towards an identity rather than an empowering spin on ‘victim’. I’m biased as I personally detest the word, and I’m aware that the concept helps many women – on a personal level I completely respect their interpretation of their experiences. But when we are speaking as women politically, does it help us if we move towards this paradigm of what is done to you becoming what you are? (and apparently, what others are who have experienced similar).
I would never want my behaviour now to be constantly judged in the context of abuse and violence that I’ve experienced in the past, and when women refer to their experiences almost as references for their beliefs and explanations for their behaviour, I wonder if that’s almost the opposite of empowerment. It may well be encouraged by the ‘survival’ narrative, but I believe we are all stronger than that – we can simultaneously take care with one another and process our own experiences. It is distressing, it is difficult and yes, sometimes we will want to sit on the floor and scream (I almost did this last week, actually!) – but the way to do it is together, in sisterhood. If we hurl our traumatic experiences at one another as pawns and are lightning quick to presume about the histories of other women, where are we heading?
Note: This is a piece from december 4th, previously published as a page on our website – not a post.
Today has seen a great deal fuss over an article published on the New Statesman blog. Called Why Movember Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be it looks at the possible racist, sexist, cissexist and heteronormative implications of “real men, growing moustaches, talking about real issues” (I think a few of these issues are pretty obvious from the tag line itself).
Personally, I find the piece silly in places, with a few good points buried within it. I’m not a huge fan of Movember. As with Children In Need, Band Aid and Race For Life, I think there’s value in interrogating the stereotypes and compromises at work (without questioning the good intent of those involved). Movember has always struck me as ever so slightly “Fathers 4 Justice” in tone and approach. Nonetheless, I’ve donated money to it and it doesn’t fill me with annoyance in the same way that, say, Do They Know It’s Christmas? does.
What interests me, though, is the response to the NS piece. People are pissed off! Really bloody pissed off! How dare anyone write this intersectional bullshit and get away with it. Here’s a sample of the comments on the piece (which are pretty unanimous):
This is why people don’t take lefties seriously. And I am a lefty.
I. WANT. TO. CRY. This is why we can’t have nice things.
Facepalming so hard that I’ve built up a callous. Ridiculous article.
Burst out laughing at the first mention of the word “racist”, then as I realized you were serious, I felt a kind of astonished pity.
This article was so stupid I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.
And so it goes on.
The response on Twitter has also been damning. Stephen Fry’s not happy:
If anything will incite me to grow a moustache next November it’s this preposterous sub-Judith Butler drivel.
That New Statesman blog post has made me actually livid.
Poor Mic! That can’t be nice.
But why are these people so angry? Have they never read anything like this before? I have. I’ve read plenty of pieces in which someone critiques a well-meaning project from an intersectional perspective. Usually I find, as is the case here, that some points ring true, others don’t. It doesn’t make me furious (and I’m not a particularly patient person). It’s just someone exploring an issue from the side of people who may or may not be marginalised by it. It’s no big deal, right? Oh, but this time it is. This time it’s not white middle-class cis feminism that’s in the dock but white middle-class cis moustache-growing (and yes, you could say not everyone growing a moustache for charity is white and middle-class, but then you could also say … well, I’ll leave you to work out the rest).
This time, it’s not feminism that’s being interrogated to death but a men’s project! A well-meaning, positive men’s project, aimed at making lives better! How dare anyone have a go at that! When a culturally specific group of men try to do something good, you don’t sit around examining the potential racist and cissexist implications. Hell no! You say “thank you” and let them get on with it.
With feminism, of course, the rules are different. With feminism, everything’s up for grabs. Men might find it absurd to have Movember called out as discriminatory, but I can’t help wondering whether they’ve ever bothered to form a position on women who are called classist for focusing on the pay gap rather than, say, FGM? Or accused of cissexism for identifying as female and calling reproductive rights feminist issues? Or called racist for writing about Miley Cyrus rather than Rhianna (or vice versa)? Or told they are abusing privilege by using their own experiences to gain publicity for a wider cause? Because this happens to certain feminists ALL THE TIME. Is it a problem? Sometimes, perhaps. It depends, surely, on the validity of individual arguments (and who gets to decide that? The privileged! People like, say, journalists who get annoyed about NS blogs!). Anyhow, it is most definitely normal.
I know what the answer to this will be: “well, if feminists want to indulge in in-fighting, they can knock themselves out. Just don’t drag my precious Movember into it.” But I don’t think that’s good enough. If white middle-class cis men (see what I did?) are outraged by one lone critique of Movember, this suggests they have no idea what it’s like to question their own privilege. They have no idea what it’s like to be called out. They are hyper-sensitive and entitled. If all intersectional interrogations of privilege so far have focused on women, then we need to ask a) whether this weight should fall on these women at all, and b) if the answer is yes, why we aren’t throwing the same questions in the path of privileged men. You could say “yeah, but that piece was just silly!” So what? If a silly piece causes such anger, what does this say about the level of unquestioning acceptance every male-led project expects?
Men such as Fry and Wright benefit from the “privileged white woman” trope. It deflects attention from them. I don’t think they are actively complicit in its promotion (oh, okay, Mic Wright is, with his whole Caitlin Moran obsession) but if they cannot see the inconsistency in outrage over one Movember piece and unquestioning acceptance of every intersectional feminist critique that has been published over the past year, then I’d like to point it out to them.
So you didn’t like one lousy piece on a charity event. It’s not as though the world changed. Get some perspective, and some empathy. And yeah, next November, grow a moustache, don’t grow one. It’s not as though anyone is actively, seriously, limiting your freedom to do so in any way.
Close your eyes and cast your minds back to the day being a feminist was a relatively easy process – you are a women, you want to be equal to men, ergo feminism suited you. Coming online to discuss feminism was a beautiful, untouched and safe environment where ideas flew around and all was well.
That was last year.
These days, becoming and being a feminist seems to be riddled with endless obstacles – much like the glass ceiling – from friendly fire. Why have we allowed this to happen? Why? I know the saying goes ‘ Don’t blame the victims’ – but you know what, some of you – YES YOU – should be bloody ashamed of yourselves. You’ve turned your back on each other, in order to appease abusers and misogynists. I didn’t become a feminist, to have to tiptoe around EVERYONE and have every tweet, every sentence, every word, criticised and policed within an inch of my life. Yes, sometimes we say some stupid things, that in hindsight we never would have done, and yes, we deserved to be told “You know what, that wasn’t cool – here’s why”. People don’t learn from aggressive insults, people learn from constructive criticism. There is no shame in getting things wrong; there is shame in making that person a target for an endless stream of abuse. Shame on you.
Women from all walks of life are afraid, yes AFRAID, to even tweet on a sodding hashtag (#sharedgirlhood), lest they be hounded and abused by other women and men. I am a woman, I had a girlhood that was consumed and corrupted by the patriarchy – why should I be forced into silence? Why should I, like so many other women across the globe, be silenced by the very people who are supposed to look out for me? WHY, SISTERS, WHY? There is absolutely nothing transphobic about sharing all the SHIT the patriarchy threw at me, all the periods, all the abuse and assaults, all the god forsaken gender stereotypes. I WILL NOT BE SILENCED.
A woman fights for representation on a banknote – she wins. Small victories = big steps for women. Why is this so bad? WHY? As a feminist you don’t have to agree with every single thing that comes out of a fellow feminists mouth or brain, but we, as a sisterhood, stand together – because nobody else has our back. No-one. You greet this great achievement with abuse, abuse and more abuse – some even more horrific than trolls. So the woman in question is white and middle class, so she went to Oxford – big fucking whoop – she did this for ALL OF US. She is a woman, she is a feminist, she is a friend – she deserves our support. No exceptions.
Why are some of you always, always picking on everything a woman does to help feminism – why would you do that? Why is nothing we do ever good enough for you? And do you know what’s even worse? Those that hurl abuse and incite pile-ons haven’t done a single fucking thing for feminism, and yet you pretend like you are the fucking feminist overlords. Stop harping on about ‘reclaiming’ feminism – it was never yours in the first place, nor is it mine. Feminism is a movement, not a tangible object you can take or give – it’s a collective. If you don’t see feminism as a collective, only something you can use to gain – yeah, I’m going there – ‘cookies’, then do bugger off.
Stop shouting, stop abusing, stop piling-on, just stop everything you are doing and LISTEN to each other. If we are at war with each other, then who’s going to go into battle with the patriarchy? Hmm? I can’t hear feminism over the sound of this incessant whining, all I hear is men laughing hysterically at us.
Shame on you.
Suddenly the pod stops spinning, I step out into a familiar environment; the school playground, the bit by the gate, next to the bikesheds. Where the dynamic of “fitting in” and “keeping your head down” was ever present. I found myself witnessing wilful misrepresentation and obvious incitement to riot. The initial reaction to retaliate, followed by self-preservation; do not engage.
So I don’t, how tragic to be a woman in the middle of my life journey, too afraid to engage with other women just beginning their own. But there it is. I cannot change that I am triggered by the bullying, that I want to be liked not hated, that my confidence is such that it wouldn’t manage an out and out attack from a handful of people seeking out reasons to be angry. The sense of a hornets nest, being held aloft and a threat of dropping from a height ever present.
There are no obvious answers to be had-mainly because the questions though perhaps originally clear have become nebulous and lost in translation. What is clear to me; I will not buy in to tolerated cruelty, personal attacks that do little but fuel fires and keep them burning. I will engage in debate, I will accept challenges that are respectful. It is my right to feel safe. It is my right to feel safe online. It is my right to refuse to listen should I choose, maybe this makes me closed minded-perhaps I’ll learn less. But I’m prepared for that. If it means I don’t have the sickening adrenaline rush of an unsolicited attack. I’ll take that every time.
How would you define man and woman, or male and female? And if you can’t do this, is there any point in being a feminist at all, arguing on behalf of a group you only half-recognise?
De Beauvoir’s famous quote “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” would suggest that those identified female at birth are socially conditioned to become “women” (whether they like it or not). Certainly this is something that rings true for me and many other feminists I know. We do not feel that we were born women; we’ve been encouraged to embrace an identity which frequently militates against our desires, capabilities and motivations. This sense of disjuncture is a powerful prompt for social change, hence it’s hardly surprising that the further along this road we go, the more bogus scientific “evidence” is uncovered to prove us wrong.
This week we’ve seen a new batch of reports claiming that “stereotypical differences in male and female behaviour” are to be explained not by conditioning but by a “hardwired difference between male and female brains”. Frustrating though this is, fortunately it’s already been expertly debunked by the brilliant Cordelia Fine, who reminds us of what should be a well-known fact (at least to scientific researchers): “the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces”:
Yet the researchers do not pay any attention to the gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities) of the young males and females in their sample.
This absence has two consequences. First, the researchers miss an opportunity to investigate whether gendered experiences might influence brain development and enhance the acquisition of important skills valuable to all. The second consequence is that, by failing to look at gendered social influences, the authors guarantee that no data will be produced that challenge the notion of “hardwired” male/female neural signatures.
Fine’s rebuttal has been celebrated by many bloggers and activists. For instance, cis white feminist Zoe Stavri (@stavvers) is overjoyed:
Hurrah indeed! I’m happy, too. Nonetheless, I’m wondering whether everyone who claims to care for gender equality feels the same way. After all, isn’t Fine- – and by extension Stavri — being transphobic in rejecting the idea that being a man or a woman is a matter of “manbrains and ladybrains” as opposed to social conditioning?
Fine differentiates between “biological sex” and “the social phenomenon of gender”. I think this is an important distinction to make. Biological sex is real. There is a difference between male and female bodies and reproductive functions, and it’s one that we disregard at our peril. And yet I sometimes see it suggested that because the difference isn’t one you can sum up in 140 characters (some people are intersex, not everyone is fertile, no one is fertile for the whole of their lives etc.) it’s a difference we should simply ignore. Witness, for instance, this frankly ludicrous series of tweets. I do not think a person can be a true feminist and find such arguments acceptable. My femaleness is not in my mind but my body. I did not get to choose and what is more, this would not matter, were we in a world in which sufficient allowance was made for biologically different bodies and non-gendered, free-thinking minds.
My risk of an unwanted pregnancy and being denied an abortion is not a random fact about me. It’s a fundamental part of what it means to be born female, shoved into the class “woman” and hence devalued as an autonomous human being. It will remain so even when I can no longer conceive. I won’t shed my perceived lack of bodily autonomy; it will have different manifestations but it will persist because I was born into this body. To claim “not everyone who is born female can bear children therefore bearing children has nothing to do with being female” is rather like me arguing that because I was born with three nipples, any biology textbook which claims having two nipples is a feature of being human is making a random assertion rather than an obvious generalisation. And generalisations matter. To argue otherwise is not only to dismiss the history of discrimination but to perpetuate it. We live in a society geared around the belief that the default human being is white and male. The fact that you can’t generalise about everyone who is not white and male — the fact that, indeed, many such people have some characteristics and advantages which overlap with white males — is not an argument for pretending that the generalised imbalance doesn’t exist.
I think this is straightforward. Other people do not. Even so, it’s important to recognise how profoundly dangerous it is to claim that some have male brains in female bodies and vice versa, since this clearly suggests that there is such a thing as a male or female brain and that if one is cisgendered, one has a brain which “matches” one’s body. This just isn’t true. I don’t have a female brain to match my female body. I just have a brain, albeit one that’s been subjected to a huge amount of gendered conditioning which has been at odds with my own perception of myself (hence the reason why I am a feminist). I don’t think this radical, and neither do I think the alternative viewpoint is more inclusive. The alternative is simply at best inconsistent, and at worst misogynist, once again privileging personalised prejudices about womanhood over a humane recognition of the potential and possibilities of all.
I’m going to tell you two things right now, one or the other of which is guaranteed to make you hate me. Ready?
OK, so number one, I’m a radical feminist. That is to say, I believe that the oppression of women is systemic; I take the view that gender is one of the systems through which oppression is perpetuated, that it is socially constructed and not innate, and that it morphs in its expression among cultures and between eras to best continue to perpetuate it. I believe than in order to eradicate oppression we need to look at women as a class and not at individuals. I don’t believe that improved or expanded “choice” is a form of liberation, and I don’t much care to analyse people’s identities. In fact I think that the liberal focus on the individual has done social justice systems, feminism first and foremost, real damage.
Number two, because I am a radical feminist that believes that women are assigned to a subordinate, sexually exploited class via socially constructed categories, I also think that trans women are ‘real’, if one can use such a term, women. I align with the stream in radical feminist thought that sees the transgression (“queering”) of gender as a welcome intervention in the process of its construction along biological lines. I also know what all radical feminists know, that “socially constructed” does not mean “unreal”. The sex class is a thing that exists in the world, and people can be assigned to it on the basis of biology or on other grounds. Furthermore, I know that trans women are subject to male sexual violence and deserve the support of rape crisis centres, women’s shelters and other feminist-founded organisations.
I don’t think trans women pose a sexual threat to their sisters. Apart from being quite a ludicrously convoluted way of doing something that men can do with impunity right in the open (harass and molest women and girls), I’ve just never seen any credible evidence to support the assertion that men posing as trans women for sexual predation is something that happens. As far as I can see, the majority of trans women just want a haven away from male violence, like we all do.
Having said that, I don’t buy into the dominant liberal narrative of identity, brain gender, female penises, “changing sex” (as opposed to gender) and so on. It’s all incoherent, self indulgent nonsense. People develop an identification with a gender for all kinds of complex psychological reasons, some of which (perhaps the minority) are sexual or partly sexual in nature. I do know that autogynophilia exists, and that sometimes women can be really threatened by it. I know because it happened to me.
When I was at university, I had this friend, let’s call him J. J was one of those really nice guys that girls liked to be friends with but never actually dated. He was quite shy, spoke very softly with a slight lisp, and didn’t really fit in with his macho classmates (we were on a quite a male dominated course). Some people thought he was gay, simply because he was introverted and got along well with the more flamboyant, assertive women on the course, such as myself.
We met in my first year and gradually became closer, until one day, the big confession came: J liked to dress in women’s clothes and had an alternate woman’s persona with a different name. He was deeply ashamed and closeted, it was the biggest secret ever. He had piles and piles of women’s clothing in locked cupboards and chests back home, and nobody, nobody knew.
Now you need to understand that this was over two decades ago; neither of us had the language of trans identities; the distinctions between transsexual, transgender and transvestite might not even have been coined yet, but we certainly didn’t speak in those terms. Our conversations tended to be practical: kinds of clothes, modes of behaving, make up tips.
We started shopping together. We would go into a shop and J would pick out clothes for me to try on. In retrospect this was quite comical because he was a big strong lad and I’m fairly gracile; all the shop assistants must have thought I was some kind of idiot, trying on piles of clothes 3 sizes too big (and totally not in my style). But anyway, we did it, and he was really sweet about it, buying me the occasional small item like a shawl or a ring as a thank you.
Sometimes when we could get away to a third friends’ apartment (also a woman) he would put on his outfits and interact with us in his woman persona. A lot of the things that I hear about people who transition were true about her: he was a lot more outgoing and assertive as a woman, spoke more and with greater assurance, had more expressive body language. I thought I was helping him work towards an eventual “coming out”, though I must admit my idea of what he would come out as was probably fairly hazy. In any case, I didn’t push. I have a lot of gay friends and I know better than to do that.
After year or so, he moved and was no longer living in a dorm but in a nice flat with a couple of friends. He was much freer there, had a bigger room with a closet he could padlock, and the shopping activities were stepped up. One time when he knew both of his flatmates were going to be away, he invited me over with the express intention of me “doing” his make up for him. I thought it was a great idea; in my opinion, he was a terrible makeup artists with no taste, so I was itching to show him how to do it ‘properly’.
Anyway, so I sat on a dressing table and he sat in a chair in front of me and I did his makeup. Full face – thick cake to cover up the bristles, shading, cheek contouring, eye and lip makeup. It must have taken me quite some time – maybe 25 minutes? – and we were quiet, not speaking much, me concentrating on the job. I didn’t really know what he was thinking about, but when I finished and gave him the mirror to admire the final result, he told me.
He asked me if I would have sex with him. He explained that now that I had applied makeup to him, he was really turned on, and needed to have relief.
I was appalled, frozen. I can’t remember what I said, only that I said no, and he excused himself to go and ‘relieve the pressure’ in the bathroom. I sat completely frozen on the spot until he came back, and that is as far as I remember. I must have made my excuses and gone home, but I can’t recall any of it. The blank space in my mind is similar to the memories of what happened during and immediately after my rape.
For decades, I couldn’t put my finger on why I essentially reacted to his request as to a sexual assault, but now I know: while I, on my part, was doing a fun thing with a mate, he was engaged in activity that was, for him, sexual. He had been having foreplay with me without my knowledge or consent. And I felt numb, disgusted, betrayed, ashamed, guilty and confused. As you would, after essentially a softly-softly sexual assault.
After this our friendship petered out. All he ever wanted to talk about when we met were his new outfits & most recent dress up sections; but I was bored by them now. We drifted apart, and he eventually married a woman who knew and was accepting of his sexual preferences.
So yeah, I knew an autogynephile and survived. He never assaulted me or pestered me for sex in that way young men do with their female friends sometimes. But I think the imbalance of knowledge between us lead him to commit a violation against me, and of the trust I placed in him as a friend.
I think we need to negotiate these difficult boundary cases, the interactions where things are not as simple as “I’m just happy to be a girl”. These things exist and they need to be incorporated into feminist analysis, not blown out of all proportion by one set of feminists and swept under the rug as impossible by another set. Apart from anything else, radical feminists need to support the struggle of trans women to simply survive as women, so they can flourish and become the valuable feminist sisters I know they can be.
And yes, it means that there will be hurtful and uncomfortable situations on the way there, but we need to deal with them as grownups and learn from them, not sling mud at each other, shrieking in outrage at the smallest infraction of the most au courant “code”. That’s why I’ve written this post: to show that we can think critically but humanely about the fractious interface between trans rights advocates and radical feminists, if we just put down the slogans and think.
For my entire life, and presumably nearly all of hers, my mother has been on a diet. My childhood home was littered with little scraps of paper scribbled with notes like “apple – 50 cals; 2 ryvita with cottage cheese – 100 cals”. I knew that the target was to come in under 800, and even back then was good enough at arithmetic to know that if an apple counted for 50, then 800 couldn’t be very much at all. Sometimes she managed to keep it up for months at a time, and there are photos of her from those periods, wearing clothes from the skinny side of the wardrobe, smiling, but tired, haunted. Or maybe that’s my imagination at work, projecting my own hunger on to the unfamiliar, gaunt face of my post-diet mother.
My primary school teacher was pretty and plump. She chatted to my mum at the school gates about eating plans and Jane Fonda workout videos. I grew up knowing that girls were supposed to be thin, and that I was not. My sister, like my father, was long and lean and had no interest in food. My best friend, Jennie Roberts, was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and impossibly delicate and pretty: petite and fragile like a china doll. I was none of these things. I was big and clumsy and awkward. I knew that I would always be too chubby and too chunky to be cute or pretty, unlike Jennie who was admired and adored by grownups everywhere we went.
Perhaps there was a time before I felt fat and, by extension, unacceptable; but I don’t remember it. For as long as I’ve been conscious of myself, I’ve been self-conscious. Self conscious about the size of my tummy, my thighs, my bottom. At some point in my mid-teens, this – predictably, unimaginatively – gave rise to an eating disorder. I tried restricting my food intake, as I had watched my mother do, and as half my school friends were doing. Sometimes I could do it, but I usually cracked. I was envious of my anorexic friends. I coveted their bulging knuckles and protruding collarbones. I have little willpower, and I love food too much to achieve those kinds of results. The obvious solution was to expel the food I did eat. So that is what I did, and that is what I have continued to do, for the following sixteen years (and counting).
I am 32 now, and have just realized that I have lived with this eating disorder for more than half of my life. It is the ultimate dirty little secret – the thing about me that nobody knows. Not my mother, not my sister, not my partner, not my friends. I am deeply ashamed of it, and yet can’t seem to shake it. It’s not something I deal with every day. It comes and goes, as my self-esteem waxes and wanes. When my self-confidence is high – and of course by that I really mean, when my weight is low – I can go months without it ever occurring to me to make myself sick. But my body inevitably cycles between lighter and heavier phases, and in the heavier times, like now, the temptation is constantly in the background. Whatever I eat is accompanied by feelings of black guilt, and a shameful desire to purge, to get it out, to feel the acid burn in my chest and know that those moments on the lips won’t find their way to the hips.
During these periods, I am filled with feelings of self-disgust and self-loathing pretty much all of the time. This is easily exacerbated, and I have to be vigilant. I have to be careful to avoid the magazine aisle in the supermarket, because if I’m not, then before I know it I’ll have spent twenty minutes feverishly absorbing every detail of the pictures on the front of celebrity gossip magazines, berating myself for not having the footballer’s wife’s sculpted physique, consoling myself with the reality television star’s cellulite. Finding something to wear is a nightmare. When I’m at the fat end of the cycle, none of my favourite clothes fit, and I feel my jeans constricting me as my flesh bulges out of them. I go shopping to buy more clothes, and have to face the horror of the high street, with its self-hatred inducing mirrors and unavoidable images of thin, beautiful women wherever I turn.
I am a highly educated woman with a serious sounding job. I espouse feminist principles and tell my nieces that they should aspire to achieve anything a man might hope for, and I really believe it. And yet, my whole self-worth is inextricably bound up with the number on the scales, and the amount of flesh spilling over my waistband. How fat or thin I currently am entirely determines how I think and feel about myself, affects whether I feel confident and capable and sociable, or whether I feel timid, anxious and want to hide from the world. When I’m slim, I’m clever, funny, talented and competent. When I’m fat, I’m ugly, boring, stupid and inept. I avoid social interaction and hide from the world, afraid to let anyone see me in case they notice my wobbly arms and flabby belly. And this makes me feel shame too, maybe even more so than the secret puking. Shouldn’t an educated, professional woman like me know better than this? Isn’t this all a little bit, well, immature? Teenage? The reality is that little has changed since I was a teenager. Only the weight that would once have prompted me to stick my fingers down my throat in disgust is now the weight I dream of being when I’m sticking my fingers down my throat, and my knees hurt a bit more than they used to when I’m kneeling over the toilet on the bathroom floor. It’s been sixteen years. Shouldn’t I have grown out of this by now? Will this irrational self-worth by numbers ever go away? Judging by my mother’s case, probably not.
I am sharing this story with faceless strangers on the internet partly for the cathartic release of finally telling someone, but also, because some feminist conversations I have seen lately have given me pause for thought. Some of the recent discussions about the future of feminist activism have suggested that issues like body image and self-esteem are trivial and insignificant, and therefore not worthy concerns for the contemporary feminist movement, which should aim to solve more serious problems. Having the energy to fret about body-image and self-confidence is a luxury of wealthy, white middle-class women. And feminists who talk about these themes in relation to issues such as women’s magazines, the fashion industry, the lads’ mags or Page 3 demonstrate their privilege and irrelevance from most other women’s lives. Of course, to a large extent this is true. I am white, middle-class, cisgendered and incredibly fortunate in so many ways, that I can see why this might be interpreted as the privileged whinings of a spoilt, entitled brat. Why should feminists waste their time and resources campaigning about the impact of the fashion and beauty industries on middle-class women’s self-esteem, when less fortunate women are fighting much bigger concerns: domestic and sexual violence, the unequal impact of austerity, female genital mutilation?
But I think this argument is a red herring. Feminism is a big, diverse, multifaceted movement, and no one feminist person or organization can hope to address all of its problems. All any of us can do is focus on the bits that matter to us or the bits we feel we have the energy and resources to try to fix, and support others as they do the same. Feminists should focus on the big, serious issues, but they can try to fix the more trivial ones too. Feminism is not a competition between white, middle-class, privileged women and those less privileged. The relevant comparison is not between me, the cis white middle class woman with an eating disorder, and other less fortunate women. The relevant comparison, from the perspective of feminism, is between me and an equivalently situated man. I am better off than many other women who haven’t had the advantages I’ve had, and that is undoubtedly unjust. But as feminists, can’t we acknowledge that it is also unjust that I’m worse off than men who share all the other main aspects of my identity – just because I happened to be born a woman, in a world that tells women to be thin and beautiful, above all else?
I want feminism to try to analyze and solve the big, complex problems caused by the intersecting oppressions of gender, race, class, disability, age, and sexual orientation. But I also want it to have something to say about the small, seemingly trivial, everyday ways in which women are made worse off then men. The beauty industry is not the only, or the biggest, problem facing women today. But it is a problem. And I think feminism would be impoverished if we stopped talking about that.