Men have the right to be revolting in public. Women don't. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
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Why farting is a feminist issue

To exhibit any kind of bodily function in public – whether it’s pissing against a wall, spitting in the street, picking and flicking earwax while one waits in a queue – is still seen as a male thing to do.

In news that has shocked precisely no one, it turns out that men who don’t like women also don’t like women breastfeeding in public. Well done, Jeremy Clarkson and Nigel Farage. It’s always good to know that some things never change.

In response to news that a woman was asked to cover herself while breastfeeding in Claridge’s, Farage has suggested that women “perhaps sit in the corner” while they feed their babies. Clarkson, meanwhile, has explained that breastfeeding “is natural, just like urinating. But when we want to do that, we go to a little room and do it in private”. So there are your choices, ladies: corner or toilet. You can’t risk offending the terminally offensive while feeding your own child.

To be fair, I genuinely believe that Farage and Clarkson are disgusted. All this ostentatious personhood on the part of women is hard to take. It’s not just that we live in a culture in which female breasts are sexualised, and hence no longer seen as functional. It’s that women aren’t meant to have flesh-and-blood bodies at all. Of course the likes of Clarkson will be appalled at any sign that women are not surface-only propositions. When we lactate in public we might as well be pissing; it’s an indication that beneath our skin there’s just as much blood, guts and passion as one would find beneath the skin of any man. When our bodies leak it’s a sign that we’re human, not dolls. Of course it causes offence.  

To exhibit any kind of bodily function in public – whether it’s pissing against a wall, spitting in the street, picking and flicking earwax while one waits in a queue – is still seen as a male thing to do. We might consider such things disgusting, but men can assume the right to be disgusting in a way that women can’t. It’s understood that male bodies are a part of what men are. Female bodies don’t have the same status. Even though, on a basic level, we know that they work in much the same way male bodies do – we shit, we piss, we perspire, we snore – we don’t really want to know this. A female body remains a thing to use, to own and to look at. It’s not something which does things suggestive of some real, human messiness inside.

These days the phrase “real woman” is associated with Dove adverts, not with women who fart and burp and might occasionally want to cough up some phlegm while out on a jog. I’m not saying these are pleasant things to do – nor am I proposing we organise a feminist fart-in (unless it’s held at Claridge’s) – but I do think we need to ask ourselves whether the perceived “maleness” of bodily functions is harmful to women. If we pretend that other women don’t snore, sweat or have smelly feet, how much more ashamed will we feel of our own bodies, simply for existing in their natural state? (Even in writing this, I’m fighting the urge to add “obviously I don’t do any of these things”, just in case it is just me.)

Changes in sexual mores have allowed us to pretend that women are no longer under enormous pressure to be “ladylike”. However, being ladylike and being chaste are not the same thing. If anything, the more flesh we are permitted to have on show, the greater the pressure upon us to make said flesh hairless, unscented and perspiration-free. Last week the Mirror ran a report on “the most lifelike sex dolls ever” (“even the close-up shots show their pouting beauty, which would make any red-blooded male’s pulse race”). I suspect that, in terms of actual bodily functions, my childhood Tiny Tears doll was more “lifelike”, but that doesn’t matter. The ultra “real” sex doll is what we’re up against – a fantasy female body that’s allowed to take up far more imaginative space than a flesh-and-blood woman ever can.

In contrast to the female body, the male body is simply allowed to be: to fill the room, legs spread wide, adding its own sounds and scents to the air. To assume the right to be a little bit revolting – to spit on the street, to jokingly raise your arse cheek to fart – is, I would argue, a form of privilege. It expresses an ownership not just of the body, but of the space around it. We don’t see it as such because we presume men and boys are “naturally” into this sort of thing. On several occasions my sons have been bought books on wee, poo and snot because it’s assumed “boys like that”. Presumably girls don’t, or at least they know they’re not meant to, given how fragrant and pristine a little girl is supposed to be (she might want to pick her nose as well, but it’s not funny when she does is). It’s not that I think we should be encouraging all children to delight in eating bogeys, but the current imbalance does suggest that, somehow, girls aren’t meant to experience themselves fully in their bodies in the way boys do.

Breastfeeding is neither disgusting nor unhygienic; it does, however, create at least one scenario in which it is clear that a woman is her body, inhabiting it as a functioning organism rather than presenting it to the world as a façade. I imagine that’s why, to the likes of Jeremy Clarkson, it really is as repulsive as public urination. It’s as close as a woman – and not just any woman, a mother, of all people – gets to dropping the act and being more than just an object beneath the male gaze (and what a shame that to do this, she first needs the excuse of nourishing another human being).

Female bodies don’t just exist to be looked at; they leak, smell, make involuntary noises, and what’s more, if they do all that then it’s also likely that they think and feel.  But a woman having thoughts and feelings won’t do. Best put her in the corner so no one can see.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.