Ladies: Accept your body, know your place

"Celebrating" female self-esteem assumes it's been destroyed in the first place - why not protect it instead?

Equalities minister Jo Swinson, co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence, has written an open letter to magazine editors, asking them all to avoid “the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight”. I’ll be honest – this really annoys me, and not simply because I’ve got billions of unhealthy solutions to losing weight to promote, just in time for the new year. I mean, if you’re interested, I’ll have you know that all of mine work. Indeed, on several occasions I lost so much weight I ended up being hospitalised. Plus I can always think up more (it’s just a matter of getting the right combination of not eating enough and brainwashing yourself into thinking that feeling cold, miserable and obsessed with food is acceptable as a constant state). Anyhow, that’s not the thing that’s annoying me the most. The truth is, I don’t want Jo Swinson, or anyone else in a position of authority, telling women how to feel about their bodies. It’s just none of their business.

Swinson wants magazines to “celebrate the beauty of diversity in body shape, skin colour, size and age”. While it’s easy to scoff at a Coalition MP lecturing others on diversity, it’s fair to say that the problem Swinson highlights is real. Most women and girls grow up believing that the way they look is unacceptable. What passes for mainstream popular culture in the UK is saturated with language and images that promote disordered eating. And yes, not every woman in the UK has an eating disorder, and that’s the very thing that always lets popular culture off the hook. It’s not us, they’ll say. Eating disorders are caused by deep psychological issues. Linking them to diets merely trivialises them. That’s an argument that used to always get to me. I might have been an anorexic, but I didn’t want to be a vain, frivolous anorexic. So I’d defend the likes of Cosmo and Closer to the death. These days I’m more suspicious. I think there’s an ED culture that surrounds us all – constant messages that undermine our relationship with our own flesh – but only some of us are prone to absorb it (and perhaps that’s the link with trauma). Once this ED culture’s got in you, though, it’s hard to get it out. It’s far easier to starve away fat and muscle than it is to rid yourself of the voices telling you how ugly and worthless you are.

So why don’t I want to support Swinson’s campaign? Is it to do with her politics? I guess that partly, it is. It strikes me that no one ever tells women to feel good about their bodies unless they’re trying to sell them something, regardless of whether it’s body lotion or party policies. For instance, let’s take a look at Swinson and fellow MP Lynne Featherstone’s Body Confidence Awards, an event where “by turning the spotlight on those clever enough to weave conscious thought into the business of making money by considering self-esteem, the organisers aimed to shine a light on the way forward” (whatever that means). So who’s getting a pat on the acceptably-sized back for making us all feel better about ourselves? Dove – fucking Dove, the cosmetics company who suggested to women that we should even be feeling paranoid about our underarms – and Boots brand No 7, “for their decision to eschew retouching and for celebrating the idea of real women” – providing said “real” women don’t sully their anti-ageing serum adverts by looking too damn real. And these awards – “presented in association with bareMinerals” – “were announced at an event at the House of Commons”. Wow. I feel great about myself already – don’t you, fellow “real” people?

It’s all terribly clumsy, but that’s not the worst of it. Why is it that female self-esteem has become a thing to be rebuilt by MPs and cosmetics companies, but only after it’s been knocked down in the first place? Why can’t we be trying to protect it from the start? Because it’s not the same when it’s been stuck back together with Dove Pro Age Body Butter and Boots Protect and Perfect. Being a “real woman” comes a humiliating second best to simply being a person. So those who still decide what beauty is will deign to let you purchase their products. So an MP will basically tell you that yes, ultra thinness is still the reigning ideal but ultra thinness is not for the likes of you. So rather than challenging a sexist, appearance-obsessed culture head-on, Jo Swinson decides the little (or not so little) people shouldn’t go on crash diets. Starving oneself down to catwalk model proportions is tantamount to getting ideas above one’s station. That’s the reason why, when Swinson attacks “fad diets”, I’m tempted to spend a week living on cucumber just for the hell of it.

It’s worth noting that Swinson is not against glossy magazines telling women to lose weight per se, offering editors the following sage advice:

As editors you owe more to your readers than the reckless promotion of unhealthy solutions to losing weight. If your aim is to give practical, sensible advice about losing weight – and not how to drop a stone in five days – you should encourage reasonable expectations, instead of dangerous ones, along with exercise and healthy eating.

Quite why it is still reasonable for Heat and Glamour to assume their readership wishes to be smaller – and quite why these magazines should then support such a view – isn’t clear, especially not in our brave, new, diversity-worshipping world. What’s even more problematic is the deliberate blending together of weight loss for “health” reasons and weight loss in order to look thin. These are not the same thing and let’s be honest – does anyone buy magazines to read about the former? It’s just boring. Furthermore, a poor diet – regardless of whether it’s associated with obesity – isn’t linked to getting the wrong advice from Marie Claire. It’s linked to poverty. MPs should have something to say about this, but it needs to be something a little more meaningful than “when your sister or your friend is standing there and moaning about whether she looks really fat, and actually she looks gorgeous, tell her so” (not that that’s not helpful; I, for one, have now resolved to stop telling my friends – the gorgeous ones, that is – that they’re ugly porkers).

If politicians are serious about changing how women feel about their bodies, there are things that they can do. These might include: challenging gender stereotyping in education; actively confronting age and sex discrimination in visual media; re-examining pay inequalities; allowing those born with a uterus to have exactly the same assumption of bodily integrity as those born without. All of these things might start to add up to a world in which women and girls don’t continue to assume they’ve been allocated a passive, decorative status, and one in which they know their bodies belong to them and not anyone else. It’s not a solution, but it is at least starting to look at where real confidence comes from – not from “beautiful underarms” or eating five a day, but from feeling you have genuine agency in the world. And this is something you don’t have when your equalities minister is busy telling magazine editors what to tell you to eat rather than looking at the inequalities you’re facing on a daily basis.

This post originally appeared on Glosswitch's blog here

Telling women how to feel about their bodies is nobody's business. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.