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A woman’s body is not a disgrace

Only women are asked to choose between being our bodies and being a person.

Boys grow up by getting bigger, stronger, louder. The things that a male child is encouraged to be good at are, by and large, things esteemed in the male adolescent too. But for girls, adolescence is a time of loss. Becoming a woman means giving things up, explains Deborah Cameron in The Myth of Mars and Venus, and taking up new and feminine occupations: “In particular, [girls] abandon physical play: instead of using their bodies to do things, they start to focus on adorning them.” Somewhere in the passage between being a child and becoming a grown-up, girls learn that our bodies are not ourselves, but a portable property that we must cultivate, display, and trade for the best bargain we can make.

I stopped climbing trees. I learned to shave my legs. The grazes on my knees faded. The scabs on my shins bloomed where my clumsy razor peeled away ribbons of skin. I was embarrassed to sweat. There were no lunchtime games of netball for girls at my school – just the option to walk circuits of the field, talking, looking, always wary of a rogue shot from the boys’ football game. I decided I was not a physical person. It would be undignified to run – and so began a long career of dodging PE, which got even easier once I was at secondary school and could claim period pains. I was not a physical person, I was just rendered physically incapable of taking part by my female physiology.

I was lying when I dolefully clutched my belly and pleaded cramps, but it was true that my body was the thing stopping me: my flesh so pale and so horribly fleshy, striated with stretch marks and all the bits the wrong shapes. It felt unthinkable that I would have to go through life represented by this grotesque object. I stopped idolising the capable, outdoorsy girls of Arthur Ransome’s novels. One day I heard a reading of a short story by Janet Frame, about a young man “so bedevilled by the demands of his body that he decided to rid himself of it completely”. I listened, rapt. It seemed such an attractive solution (the story is called “Solutions”) to the problem I had with myself, and such a shame that it did not work out better for the young man: in the end, some mice mistake his disembodied brain for a prune, and eat him, or what’s left of him.

The insistence that women are no more than our bodies has historically been a means to limit us, tying us to the supposed power of our hormones like dogs chained to stakes, extending the symbolic nothingness imposed on the holes and hollows of our bodies to void our claims to humanity. A clever girl can answer that by declaring “I am not my body”, but it is a bad answer. Only women are asked to choose between being our bodies and being a person. The male body is uncontroversially a human body, conferring human status. A female one is a liability, a disgrace. Safer not to see yourself within it, but to set yourself apart, and imagine your body as a thing to be improved and exploited.

There are several fields open to the woman who accepts the escapologist’s vision of her body as object. Prostitution, for example: a frequent defense of prostitution is that the women within it “don’t sell themselves, they sell a service”, as if that service didn’t involve the most intimate access to the body, as if our bodies were not ourselves. Or commercial surrogacy, where a fertile womb is simply a warehouse that can be leased over and over. These things are perfectly consistent with a society that treats the female body as a thing, and so too is the dull grind of obligation sex, where women dutifully make their bodies available for their partners’ satisfaction, with no expectation of their own pleasure.

It’s only possible to believe all those things are harmless if you believe there’s no one at home in the female body to be harmed. It’s a useful fiction for those who find women’s humanity an inconvenience, but it is a fiction. The young man of Janet Frame’s story, finally rid of his hateful body, “could never any more proclaim his identity… nor could he see that he was lying in a dustbin; nor could he feel anything except a roaring, like the sound in an empty shell which houses only the memory of the tide”. You cannot escape your body; there is no you without it. Our being resides in our limbs, our skin and all our senses.

Which is why I cried at Caitlin Morans letter to troubled teenage girls. “Pretend you are your own baby,” she says. “ Your body wants to live – that’s all and everything it was born to do. Let it do that, in the safety you provide it. Protect it.” I wished that I had thought of those words at 12, at 16, at 22, at all the times I’d made my body my adversary. But I wished also that I and every other girl had never been pushed through that brutal border crossing which makes you an alien in your own skin. I wish that girls would never have to pretend they are their own baby, because they were never forced into exile from themselves. You are your body, and your body – tender, needy, sticky and vulnerable – is a beautiful and human thing.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.