A slippery slope (as used by the penguins at London Zoo). Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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First, a spectacularly misogynist and homophobic (and now withdrawn) advert from Veet, manufacturers of hair-removing goo, claimed that failing to remove your leg-hair with the help of Veet products will turn you into an actual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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Westminster terror: Parliament hit by deadly attack

The Met Police is treating the events in Westminster as a "terrorist incident". 

A terrorist attack outside Parliament in Westminster has left four dead, plus the attacker, and injured at least 40 others. 

Police shot dead a man who attacked officers in front of the parliament building in London, after a grey 4x4 mowed down more than a dozen people on Westminster Bridge.

At least two people died on the bridge, and a number of others were seriously hurt, according to the BBC. The victims are understood to include a group of French teenagers. 

Journalists at the scene saw a police officer being stabbed outside Parliament, who was later confirmed to have died. His name was confirmed late on Wednesday night as Keith Palmer, 48.

The assailant was shot by other officers, and is also dead. The Met Police confirmed they are treating the events as a "terrorist incident". There was one assailant, whose identity is known to the police but has not yet been released. 

Theresa May gave a statement outside Number 10 after chairing a COBRA committee. "The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech," she said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has tweeted his thanks for the "tremendous bravery" of the emergency services. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also released a short statement. He said: "Reports suggest the ongoing incident in Westminster this afternoon is extremely serious. Our thoughts are with the victims of this horrific attack, their families and friends. The police and security staff have taken swift action to ensure the safety of the public, MPs and staff, and we are grateful to them."

After the incident this afternoon, journalists shared footage of injured people in the street, and pictures of a car which crashed into the railings outside Big Ben. After the shots rang out, Parliament was placed under lockdown, with the main rooms including the Commons Chamber and the tearoom sealed off. The streets around Parliament were also cordoned off and Westminster Tube station was closed. 

Those caught up in the incident include visitors to Parliament, such as schoolchildren, who spent the afternoon trapped alongside politicians and political journalists. Hours after the incident, the security services began evacuating MPs and others trapped inside Parliament in small groups. 

The MP Richard Benyon tweeted: "We are locked in Chamber of House of Commons." Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner tweeted: "I'm inside Parliament and me and my staff are safe."

The MP Jo Stevens was one of the first to confirm reports that a police officer had been attacked. She tweeted: "We've just been told a police officer here has been stabbed & the assailant shot."

George Eaton, the New Statesman politics editor, was in the building. He has written about his experience here:

From the window of the parliamentary Press Gallery, I have just seen police shoot a man who charged at officers while carrying what appeared to be a knife. A large crowd was seen fleeing the man before he entered the parliamentary estate. After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police. Ministers have been evacuated and journalists ordered to remain at their desks.   

According to The Telegraph, foreign minister Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier, tried to resucitate the police officer who later died. Meanwhile another MP, Mary Creagh, who was going into Westminster to vote, managed to persuade the Westminster tube staff to shut down the station and prevent tourists from wandering on to the scene of the attack. 

A helicopter, ambulances and paramedics soon crowded the scene. There were reports of many badly injured victims. However, one woman was pulled from the River Thames alive.

MPs trapped inside the building shared messages of sympathy for the victims on Westminster Bridge, and in defence of democracy. The Labour MP Jon Trickett has tweeted that "democracy will not be intimidated". MPs in the Chamber stood up to witness the removal of the mace, the symbol of Parliamentary democracy, which symbolises that Parliament is adjourned. 

Brendan Cox, the widower of the late, murdered MP Jo Cox, has tweeted: "Whoever has attacked our parliament for whatever motive will not succeed in dividing us. All of my thoughts with those injured."

Hillary Benn, the Labour MP, has released a video from inside Parliament conveying a message from MPs to the families of the victims.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed his sympathy. 

While many MPs praised the security services, they also seemed stunned by the surreal scenes inside Parliament, where counter-terrorism police led evacuations. 

Those trapped inside Parliament included 40 children visiting on a school trip, and a group of boxers, according to the Press Association's Laura Harding. The teachers tried to distract the children by leading them in song and giving them lessons about Parliament. 

In Scotland, the debate over whether to have a second independence referendum initially continued, despite the news, amid bolstered security. After pressure from Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the session was later suspended. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that her "thoughts are with everyone in and around Westminster". The Welsh Assembly also suspended proceedings. 

A spokesman for New Scotland Yard, the police headquarters, said: "There is an ongoing investigation led by the counter-terrorism command and we would ask anybody who has images or film of the incident to pass it onto police. We know there are a number of casualties, including police officers, but at this stage we cannot confirm numbers or the nature of these injuries."

Three students from a high school from Concarneau, Britanny, were among the people hurt on the bridge, according to French local newspaper Le Telegramme (translated by my colleague Pauline). They were walking when the car hit them, and are understood to be in a critical condition. 

The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has also tweeted his solidarity with the UK and the victims, saying: "Solidarity with our British friends, terribly hit, our full support to the French high schoolers who are hurt, to their families and schoolmates."

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.