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20 October 2014

Apple’s egg-freezing plan is simply a way of telling women to be more like men

Rather than reforming an unequal system that give priority to men, companies are just offering medical interventions that enable women to behave like men.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Why would a healthy young woman want to have her eggs frozen? There may be several reasons and, as those are her eggs, it’s none of my business. But why would it be her employer’s business? When I read of the employee egg freezing schemes of Apple and Facebook, that’s the thing I can’t understand.

Or rather, I can but I wish I didn’t. Employers want female employees to function in the same way as male ones. They don’t want them to mess things up by getting pregnant. They’d rather give women the false hope that, years down the line, those frozen eggs might yet produce the child who would have “ruined” things back in the day. Employers want to give women choice but not the choice that comes from living in a world which doesn’t see your failure to be male as an inconvenience.

You can argue that this is about work and reproduction, and partly that’s true, but it’s also about how women are valued. To even approach the worth of men, we’re always in need of some intervention or other.

In The Beauty Myth Naomi Wolf argued that the cosmetic surgery industry grew “by manipulating ideas of health and sickness”:

Women have long been defined as sick as a means of subjecting them to social control. […]The surgical industry has taken over for its own profit motives the ancient medical attitude […] which defines normal, healthy female physiology, drives, and desires as pathological.

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With egg freezing schemes, this pathologisation of femaleness itself is being extended into the realm of reproduction. We are dealing with a problem which – in the case of the standard Apple employee’s predicament as opposed to medically defined infertility – is socially constructed, yet the solution is seen to lie in operating on the female body rather than critiquing the society that ignores this body’s lived experience and needs.

Apple’s egg freezing plan doesn’t just tell us about the lengths employers will go to in order avoid treating employees as diverse human beings. It can be placed within the wider context of female bodies routinely being positioned weak and inadequate. Women might find life under patriarchy wanting but patriarchy simply tells us “it’s not me, it’s you”. We’re meant to believe the female body has been tried and found wanting. Need to be treated as a person? Sorry, but you just aren’t built for it. We’re not acceptable as we are and thus an endless succession of “treatments” seems the only option.

We experience physical growth and sexual development as something to be feared, keeping ourselves in check with “health kicks” and “detoxes”.  We experience our reproductive capacities as an intrusion; there’s never enough time and it’s never the right time, so we submit to extreme interventions rather than asking for structural change. We think of ageing as something shameful, a disease to be treated with botox, magic serums and the surgeon’s knife. Even when our bodies and minds could be called healthy, still we remain patients, undergoing therapy for the sickness that is not having been born male.   

Long before she has started to look for grey hairs and wrinkles, before she has even hit puberty, a girl knows that her eyes are too small and need lining in kohl, and that her stomach is too large and needs holding in, and that no hair must ever be known to grow beneath her armpits or on her chin and upper lip. Visit Boots and Superdrug and you will see that most of the shelves are lined, not with treatments for headaches or flu, but with products to deal with the inadequacies of the female form: crash diets, hair removal for bodies, hair dye for scalps, make-up, anti-ageing lotions, face masks, special washes to disguise the smell of your own genitals. Some of these things will even be named and packaged as though they are medical products: Prescriptives, BlissLabs, Dr Ceuticals, Skin Doctors, DERMAdoctor, Remedy Serum.

Buying these treatments, you know the objective is to convince people that you have been “cured”. You’re someone whose armpits never sprout hair, whose vulva never smelled, whose skin never creased and whose hair colour never faded. The expectations become so normalised you can start to believe that most other women are naturally like this; it’s only failures like you who need to the extra support. It becomes shaming. We might discuss whether botox is really necessary or whether a Hollywood is perhaps a step too far beyond a Brazilian, but female facial hair? Shhh! You’re the only one! God forbid that we ever accept this as just what some female faces are like.

And gods forbid that we accept that for some women, having babies in their teens, or their twenties, or their thirties, or their forties ought to be just fine. We’re meant to accept the lie that both inside and out the female body is not performing as it is meant to. We’re taught that male bodies “fit” whereas female bodies get in the way. Yet having and making use of a female reproductive system should not be incompatible with getting an education, earning money or being socially integrated. It should not be incompatible with independence; the unspoken requirement that all mothers either depend on a male partner or suffer financial deprivation is inhumane.

We are forced into a situation where we all have to pretend that so-called family planning is in our control. If you mess up, sorry, that’s just biology. Should’ve got on with that egg freezing. But how can we make the right choices when we’re working within a structure that positions male bodies and male reproductive capacities as the norm? There’s nothing wrong with women, nothing at all. We’re human beings, too. If the world is only recognising the embodied reality of half the human race, then we don’t just have the capacity to change this – it’s our moral obligation to do so.  

In 1970’s The Dialectic of Sex, Shulamith Firestone argued that “though the sex class system may have originated in fundamental biological conditions, this does not guarantee once the biological basis of their oppression has been swept away that women and children will be freed”:

On the contrary, the new technology, especially fertility control, may be used against them to reinforce the entrenched system of exploitation.

44 years later, I can’t help thinking that there is some truth in this. Biology is not, in and of itself, our problem. We’re fine, we women. It’s the perception that we’re not that we have to challenge. I don’t want parts of us needlessly frozen, whether it’s our frown lines or our eggs. I just want a world into which women’s bodies are permitted to fit.