A slippery slope (as used by the penguins at London Zoo). Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on the slippery slope of gender: why shaving and snacking are feminist issues

Gender policing is all about the little things – trying to limit women through rules about beauty and dress and behaviour. But little things become big things, and it’s vital we fight the battles that make a difference.

It’s always the little things. In the midst of a welter of unutterably depressing news about welfare and political turmoil, the great controversy of the week has been, yet again, the stunning fact that women are human beings with bodies that grow hair, eat, sweat and shit. 

First, a spectacularly misogynist and homophobic (and now withdrawn) advert from Veet, manufacturers of hair-removing goo, claimed that failing to remove your leg-hair with the help of Veet products will turn you into an actual bloke. Then there was the equally repugnant site set up to shame “Women Eating on the Tube”, featuring non-consensual pictures of women doing just that, because there’s nothing worse a female person could possibly do than demonstrate in public that she has a body which gets hungry. There have already been some stellar pieces written about this round of gender policing, the best of which have been by Paris Lees and Ellie Mae O’Hagan respectively. 

Now, in five years of feminist blogging I have avoided weighing in on the body hair debate, for two reasons, the first of which is political. I’ve always been faintly distrustful of the school of feminism that advocates a return to “natural” womanhood as a political statement, because as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing. There is something a tiny bit reactionary about the plea for nature as opposed to liberated modernity; it runs uncomfortably close to the rhetoric of those social conservatives who would prefer women to be “natural” when it comes to being submissive to a male provider and hogtied by their own reproductive capacities, but to continue the decidedly unnatural practices of bleaching, waxing and taking a bath more than once a year.

The problem arises when any behaviour, however private and personal, is socially enforced. The problem arises when, according to the language of Veet, you have to go through the expensive and time-consuming rigmarole of shaving to prove that you are a proper, well-behaved woman and therefore worthy of the kisses of easily-shocked men with boring haircuts. And the problem arises when this sort of pop controversy is used as a decoy, distracting us from structural arguments about class, power and privilege. Body hair, in particular, has become an obstructive stereotype when it comes to feminist history – sexist commenters speak of “hairy-legged-feminists” when what they really mean to say is that women who do not conform, women who refuse to perform the rituals of good feminine behaviour, are a deeply fearful prospect.

The second reason is a bit more personal. According to the accepted way this sort of article is supposed to go, now is when I’m supposed to tell you you exactly what I do with my own body hair and why and how it's always been a problem. Unfortunately, I am personally exempt from this particular dilemma by virtue of being a human axolotl who doesn’t grow much hair anywhere. I am literally unable to be the furry-legged, forest-crotched feminist hellwraith I often find myself accused of being. This makes shaving a largely academic issue, and puts me in precisely no position to judge any woman for her intimate topiary decisions, and I wish my friends would stop asking me to validate theirs. Seriously. Do what you want. I just want you to be happy. 

As a teenager, though, I used to shave anyway – gamely saving up my pocket money for popular brand equipment I really had no use for – because I wanted to be part of that secret club of skin nicks and ritual complaints about razor burn. Did you shave, sugar or wax? Did you remove the hair up to the top of your shortest gym skirt, or all the way up, implying arcane and enviable sluttery? I remember these conversations as amongst the few times I was permitted, as a nerdy, nervous, weird-looking kid, to chat to the cool girls. The pain, expense and wasted time of womanhood was something we were all supposed to share. Few of us had the language of feminism - this was before Tumblr, Twitter and internet activism brought gender politics into every schoolgirl’s back pocket. We complained about shaving and straightening and eyebrow-curling because that sort of complaining was a safe, accepted way to express discomfort with the basic fact that, in Simone de Beavoir’s words, “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”.

Gender policing is all about the little things. It’s the daily, intimate terrorism of beauty and dress and behaviour. In this as in so much else, feminists who are not transsexual can learn a great deal from trans writers and activists - I'm indebted to the work of Charlie Jane Anders, and Julia Serano, both of whom talk about how femininity gets captured by capitalism, and how that homogenous, compulsory performance of femininity becomes a scapegoat for all society’s bad feelings about women in general and trans women in particular. So it is not enough to feel that you are a woman - you have to prove it with a hundred daily conformities and capitulations. The reason the Veet advert is so hurtful, the reason the “Women Eating on the Tube” site and its backlash went so viral, is that they both spell out gender policing at its simplest level – behave, be quiet and pretty and compliant, control your messy, hairy, hungry self, or you are not a woman at all.

None of which is to say that girliness can’t be a good time. Dressing up, playing with makeup, fashion – all of that is a lot of fun right up until it becomes compulsory, until you have to do it to prove you're a real woman, a good employee, a person worthy of love and affection. The same goes for all of the bizarre rules that go along with being female in this society, the rules you have to engage with whether or not you choose to follow them: be pretty. Be nice. Be thin. Try to look as young and fragile as possible. Be sexy, but not overtly sexual. Don’t eat in public. Don’t eat at all. Your body is all wrong: shave it down, starve it smaller, take up less space, be less physical, be less.

The little things turn out to be about the big things. They’re about race, class and gender status. For trans women, or women of black, middle-eastern or Mediterranean heritage, the question of body hair is extra fraught, because “passing” as a woman these days turns out to mean looking as much like a nubile white cissexual supermodel as possible. Shaving or waxing is an ongoing expense, even if you do it yourself at home; getting hair removed professionally or lasered away permanently can run to thousands of dollars over a lifetime. The same principle applies to eating on public transport: doing so is not considered “classy”. “Real ladies” conceal their bodily functions from the world as much as possible. “Real ladies” are blank, smooth, pale slates, with nothing inside, no guts, no gore, no appetite, no personality. 

Cultural disgust for the female body is deeply political. It is tied into reproductive and social control, which affects all female-identified people, whether or not we plan to have children or are biologically capable of pregnancy. Gender policing is about making sure that women don't get above ourselves, that we can be seen as less than human, with no real interiority, without real bodies that eat and shit and hurt and die. If the female body remains a beautiful mystery, if it remains an ethereal, abstract quantity, you don’t have to feel so bad when you do bad things to it.

How and where we choose to eat lunch. What we do with our hair in the morning and our pubes at night. Whether and when we wear makeup. Whether we wear jeans or a skirt. All of these things are intimate, everyday decisions that wouldn't matter if we didn't spend thousands of hours and a great deal of money fretting about them over the course of the short time we get to spend on this planet. We experience all of this on an intimate, everyday level, and it seems like it shouldn’t matter, but it does. The little indignities, the little restrictions, they matter so much. And if we’re smart and pay attention, they give us a language to talk about the big ones.

The world in which we fritter away our energies worrying about body hair and eating on public transport is the same world in which the British government has just appointed a Minister for Women who is against both abortion rights and gay marriage. It is the same world in which people on welfare have just taken another hammering, being painted as scroungers even as the outgoing Minister for Women gets to keep almost ninety thousand pounds in wrongly claimed expenses. It is the same world in which women are indefinitely detained and then threatened with deportation for being born queer in the wrong country and wanting to live and love in peace. 

And the little capitulations wear us down. They soften us up for the big capitulations. Any good dictator knows that, which is why Kim Jong Un has just made it mandatory for every male student in North Korea to emulate his slightly odd haircut. Ultimately, being a “good woman” isn’t just about shaving and whether you eat crisps on the bus. It’s about how silent you’re prepared to be in the face of social injustice.

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

Anoosh Chakelian
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A view from Brexitland: Boston, the town that voted strongest to leave the EU

This little pocket of Lincolnshire is waking up to the realisation that its voice has finally been heard.

It’s market day in Boston. Stall owners are setting up, chattering and squinting in the crisp morning sunshine. Trade yawns into life amid the stands of fruit, squat pots of begonias, secondhand comics and pet supplies, as it does every Saturday.

But this isn’t every Saturday. The little Lincolnshire town is waking up to the realisation that its voice has finally been heard. It has returned the highest Brexit vote in Britain, with 75.6 per cent voting to leave the European Union. An aim that has boiled beneath its quiet, quaint surface for years.

Described by the Mail three years ago as “the town that’s had enough”, Boston is home to the highest concentration of EU migrants after London. In the period between 2004 and 2014, the migrant population increased by 460 per cent. Of the 64,000 people now living in the borough (some officials believe the real figure could be 10,000 more), about 12 per cent were born in EU countries.

This is a monumental demographic change for a sleepy farming town that was almost entirely classed as “white British” in 2001 (the constituency of Boston & Skegness is now 86 per cent white British, and 10.8 per cent “white other”).


West Street, Boston. Photos: Anoosh Chakelian

The new Bostonians are chiefly Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian – I also hear smatterings of Russian as I wander around. The market square is filled with elderly English people, gossiping and enjoying cooked breakfasts in the sun, young men excited about the Poland v Switzerland match that afternoon, and families of all backgrounds. It’s a mix, but anxiety about people speaking different languages is voiced by nearly every born-and-bred Bostonian I meet.

“If you close your eyes, you can sometimes only hear eastern European voices, and that can be scary,” remarks Paul, a 59-year-old engineer perusing the fruit stands. “Because of the language barrier, they all stay together, almost like a ghetto. People are people wherever they come from, and we wouldn’t have a maternity unit without them, but it’s been too fast. Integration takes time; you can’t do it instantly.”

“People joke here that you can walk through the town and not hear a single English person,” adds Chrissie Redford, a chief reporter at the Boston Standard, during a coffee break from reporting. “And that’s happened to me. My concern is now so many people have voted, whether that rift will get deeper.”

Three Latvian men in their thirties are sharing a beer in the nearby churchyard. Boston’s tall, distinctive medieval church tower, known affectionately as the Stump, looms over them. “What happens now?” asks Vitels, who is rolling a cigarette. He has been working factory shifts here. “I can’t go back to Latvia, there are big problems there. Romania, Bulgaria, everywhere there has been war. Nobody wants to live like that. [Brexit] makes me feel bad. People think I’m difficult, because I’m foreign.”

“The economy in Latvia is not good, but in Britain it’s very good,” frowns Gatis, who is self-employed. “Why are we here? Because we live much better here. It’s nicer.”

The English agree, which is part of the problem. “It’s a really good way of life in this area, and that is why it went so heavily for Out,” Mike Cooper, the tweed-clad owner of a local car museum, and Tory borough councillor, tells me, as we weave between the market stalls. “People feel that the massive influx is eroding their way of life. We’re not being racially intolerant; we’re living with it day to day.”

Cooper voted to leave, but there is no spring in his step. The local politicians and farm and factory owners know that this town relies on migration. Eastern Europeans settle in Boston because there is such a demand for agricultural labour, and for food manufacturing workers. Most of the vegetables we buy in our supermarkets are grown in Lincolnshire.

The perception persists among some I meet that migrants are “taking jobs from our own people”, but unemployment here is comfortably below the national average. The council estimates that around 20,000 economic migrants work in the Boston area, whereas the current number of people claiming unemployment benefits was just 630 on the last count, according to Office of National Statistics figures from May.


Boston voted for Brexit by 75.6 per cent.

But such a large low-paid workforce does cause difficulties. The average wage here has been forced down (£9.13 an hour, compared with the £13.33 national average) by employment agencies hiring cheap, flexible labourers. Similarly, rents have been driven up disproportionately by landlords taking advantage of the newcomers’ willingness to live ten to a house.

But migrants complain that they receive the blame for this, rather than those abusing their vulnerability. “It’s quite sad, because it looks like [politicians] aren’t interested in these things,” says a 40-year-old construction worker, Zee Barbaks, who campaigns against exploitative gangmasters. He and his wife, both Latvian, arrived in Boston 11 years ago. Before their two young children were of school age, they alternated factory shifts in order to look after them, “swapping them over in the car park”. I sit on a park bench with him while his son scampers around the playground.

“Agencies keep people out of holiday money and sick pay, they make them pay their wages on accommodation,” Barbaks says. “When women get pregnant they don’t give them work. Sometimes they use three people for one job – so those people are getting nothing.”

He is saddened by the huge local Brexit vote: “Ten years ago, Boston was empty. Before, every second shop was closed on West Street,” he says. “If you look now, there are loads of changes in a good way, eastern Europeans starting businesses. But now, if they stay out of Europe, in ten years’ time, it’s going to be like it was ten years ago. They’ve just done ten steps back.

“I understand that it is loads of people who have moved in, but if the agencies were sorted out, there would probably be less people here. This is what the government should be looking at.”

But it’s a perceived cultural divide, rather than material concern, which has driven Boston so strongly towards Brexit. Even the Ukip deputy leader of Boston Borough Council, Jonathan Noble, concedes that West Street was a ghost street when recession hit before the migrants set up shop (“so they have done some good here”).


Councillor Noble thanks Boston for voting Leave.

Although people worry about pressure on public services – difficulty getting school places and GP appointments, in particular – the local economy is healthy. The message they have sent to Westminster is a plea for identity.

“We’re British,” shrugs Mike, a 66-year-old retired lorry driver sitting outside a café. “I don’t care if prices go up; at least we’ll be running ourselves. We’re top of the league for wanting them [migrants] out. Some of the Polish people are nice, but there are too many.

“Barack Obama, flipping David Beckham, Bob Geldof, Cameron saying it’s good to have them here – that made me more determined, I got fed up with it. All the money is down in London, it’s disgusting. [Immigration’s] gone too far anyway, I doubt much will change. We should’ve listened to Enoch Powell. Good old Enoch,” he chuckles. His wife gives him a stern look.

“I’ve heard there’s a sign on a shop in West Street that says ‘No English’,” adds his friend Fred. “I might want to buy a Polish cake. But they don’t want to mix with us.”

Walking up and down West Street – where there are numerous eastern European restaurants, Baltic food stores, a Latvian bakery and Polish pub, and roars of “Polska!” from football fans – I can’t find that ‘No English’ sign. I doubt it exists. But it’s the perception that’s telling. English locals are the ones who feel unwelcome, far more so than their European neighbours (those I speak to are overwhelmingly positive about their hometown). They also feel their views are unwelcome in Westminster.

“We’re the ones living it,” says Chris Pain, who has owned a number of businesses in Boston and sits as an independent on Lincolnshire County Council. “When in London they say ‘we need more people’, we know that’s not true. They like it [immigration] because they can eat in nice restaurants and have people from abroad doing their menial work.”

There is hope for integration in a post-Brexit Boston, however. Young people I speak to are far more positive about their foreign neighbours. “I’ve grown up with knowing the EU,” says Kirsty, a 21-year-old graduate training to become a teacher. “I have no problem with the other communities. I’ve worked in McDonald’s and cafés around here with people from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia and they’re absolutely wonderful. People need to learn to understand each other more – actually communicate. And they don’t; that’s why there’s a misunderstanding.”

Also hinting at a more harmonious future is Sylvia Giza, 38, who has lived in Boston for 12 years. She works behind the counter of a Polish butcher’s off West Street. “We pay tax, we are educated, we buy a house. We’re not scary. I have three children, they go to school and learn English, and now they are speaking in English to me at home! So I take the book and try working and reading,” she grins, turning to her next customer – an English woman surveying the array of Polish sausages.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.