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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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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