I am female and I have a female body. I know! How retro! Weren’t they last seen in biology textbooks from the 1950s? (My bleeding vagina says no.) I am writing this having just read a trans woman’s response to Laurie Penny’s recent article on trans rights the New Statesman. I am not interested in discussing that particular “controversy”; what interests (and angers) me is the following passage:
The British feminist media cadre — particularly its triumvirate of transphobes whose filter on current events is more or less penis shaped — has given Penny heaps of abuse. I will not link their statements, nor bother to once again speak their names, but I reckon you all know who I mean. And they’ve been utterly hostile to Penny solely for having critical thinking that is resistant to the nostalgic imaginations of feminism’s nature-over-nurture iconification of the True Female Body.
It’s hilarious, isn’t it? Let’s all have a laugh. Oh, those silly, silly TERFs, thinking that the female body is something that they, mere cis women, can define. How regressive! How conservative! That’s not how it works. As the opening sentence of the blog post shows – describing “the blistering zap of laser against upper lip” – having “a female body” isn’t having a womb and a vagina and all of the shit that comes with it. It is, on the other hand, having a hairless upper lip (a surprise to sufferers of PCOS, but never mind).
Few things make me viscerally angry but I read this and I can’t help thinking “how dare you?” How dare anyone that it is okay to dismiss the reality of a female body with superiority, smugness and snark? How dare anyone who does not experience female oppression from birth ridicule those who try to locate and articulate it? How dare anyone imply the very act of describing the female body makes one complicit in the objectification to which it is subject (nostalgic … iconification)? To write something like that is cruel, mean-spirited and heartless. It pisses all over the abuses women and girls suffer every day because of the bodies they are born into. It erases the disjuncture between male fantasies of what a female body is and female experiences of having one. It sneers at feminists who passionately challenge essentialist beliefs about what female bodies mean.
The True Female Body was never a feminist fantasy; it was and is a patriarchal one. The True Female Body is fetishized, objectified, used and then rejected. That those who attempt to put a better narrative in its place – one that is based on flesh, blood and the humanity of women – should then be accused of patriarchy’s own crimes is nothing short of shameful.
Female bodies are imperfect. If you do not have one, you will not know this. You may want one, but that is by the by. You can’t erase someone else’s existence because it isn’t yours. There are things that females experience that you would not want. You will not, from the day you are born, be told to fear men because you are smaller, weaker and less valuable. You will not experience puberty as becoming a piece of meat, all tits and arse for others to devour. You will not endure the pain of endometriosis. You will never sit alone on a toilet painfully passing out the bloody clots of an embryo that didn’t make it. You will never literally piss yourself laughing because that’s what childbirth has done to your muscle tone. You will never go through a premature menopause. You will never know what it is like to be born into a body that is not supposed to shit, urinate, stink, fart, sweat, burp, grow hair in the wrong places, make too much noise or take up too much space, and which nevertheless does all of these things. You will never feel the weight of millennia of disgust for the hole that is between your legs. This is not idealisation. This is not iconification. It is the very opposite – a plea for the female body to be taken seriously, not as an object for others to describe, but as something that is inhabited and experienced by real, live human beings.
The female body is not an imagining. It is not an object to be picked off a shelf. It is not lip lasering or hormones or implants or restructuring. It is pain and blood and guts and strength. There are few things so misogynist as to dismiss all that women and girls go through with a smug, superior quip while simultaneously deciding — you, the expert — precisely which physical experiences do count as “female” (hairless upper lips? What do you think women are? Barbie dolls?).
You accuse feminists who disagree with you of “nostalgic imaginings”. You write of “iconification”. There is nothing nostalgic in granting female bodies status and meaning. There is nothing essentialist, muddle-headed or sentimental in defending bodies that have been viewed as disgusting, dirty and the source of all sin for millennia. There is nothing shameful in describing female experience of female bodies. Women are not the sum of their reproductive systems but this very fact – that they are HUMAN BEINGS and not just walking wombs – means they damn well have the right to talk about what their body is and what it means.
To treat women who seek to articulate their own physical realities as naïve, bigoted earth mothers, consenting to the hatred directed at their bodies simply for daring to admit these bodies exist, is a disgrace. To say “I am female and this means something” is not to say “I am what male observers of the female body throughout the ages have reduced me to”. Not to be able to see this is out and out misogyny. It is hateful and it is not okay.