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First, a spectacularly misogynist and homophobic (and now withdrawn) advert from Veet, manufacturers of hair-removing goo, claimed that failing to remove your leg-hair with the help of Veet products will turn you into an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

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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