Do you remember the first time you heard the word ‘slut’?
I don’t, but it was certainly by the age of 11 or 12, and I knew instinctively that it was something I categorically didn’t want to be. The venom with which my new classmates spat the word scared me and, despite not fully understanding the mechanics (cough) of what it would take to gain such a label, the fear of it alone taught me that to be openly sexual as a woman is inherently wrong. That a woman who has sex or who is confident in her body is somehow sullied and disgraced, and to be avoided at all costs.
I know that I am not alone in this. No female-presenting person’s experience is universal (despite what the glossy magazines might want you to believe) yet the world somehow manages to teach us universal lessons; shut your legs and mouth, hide your body and don’t show skin, and be ashamed of what you’ve naturally been given.
These unconscious ways that we learn to shame ourselves and the women around us are insidious, and training starts early. According to a global study conducted by Dove in 2011, more than 90 percent of girls aged 15 to 17 years want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance, with body weight ranking the highest, and that nearly a quarter of those would consider undergoing plastic surgery. This is unsurprising when other studies like the Rathbone Report reveal that more than half of young women are bullied at school simply because of how they look.
The reasons behind this pervasive policing of women’s bodies can, it seems to me, be divided into two broad categories.
Firstly, that it is ‘for our own good’. We must protect ourselves from the leering eyes and wandering hands of men and boys who, presumably, have no control over their own behaviours. We become the unwilling guardians of ‘virtue’ and ‘chastity’, held to unreasonably high moral standards which, when strayed from, become our own undoing. If a woman is sexually assaulted at a party, society shakes its head and asks ‘how much had you drunk, and what were you wearing’? Its implication is twofold; that our responsibility lies not only in protecting ourselves, but also in preserving the morality of those men who might be tempted by feminine wiles.
The second reasoning is one which I’ve already touched upon and, oh boy, it’s a big one; shame. We’ve taught our girls to be apologetic of their less-than-perfect bodies, but to be ashamed of being sexy if we are confident in our figures. To stifle our sensuality and our sexual desires, yet to be embarrassed about being ‘frigid’. To not wear too little (slut) but to not wear too much either (prude). We are taught that the way we dress, the way we talk, and the way we hold ourselves are things that can offend, and the we must contort ourselves until we fit into this box of ‘acceptable womanhood’.
Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Our bodies are a battlefield in a war that has raged throughout history, and from the earliest written legal codes through to modern-day abortion debate, society has typically seen female anatomy and autonomy as matters to be regulated and debated – almost always without the input of women themselves.
Despite the progress we’ve made over the last few decades (in fact, this year marks the half-centenary for the UK Abortion Act 1967), it’s clear that 2017 is going to be another year of long legislative battles for women’s rights advocates. From movements in Europe to limit the freedoms of women wearing headscarves and Muslim veils (such as the burqa and the niqab), policing of trans women’s bodies as bathroom bills accumulate in US courtrooms, through to schoolgirls being sent home for wearing dresses that ‘distract’ male teachers, and the ‘reinstating of the global gag rule’ which bans international NGOs from providing abortion services or even advice if they receive US funding, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Progress has been made, and despite certain recent election results, there have been reasons to feel positive. In 2016 alone, women came together to make NOISE, fighting off an extreme abortion ban in Poland, calling for the preservation of domestic violence support services, and rallying around campaigns to fight menstruation stigma. Women of colour led the way in taking back autonomy, heading up the Black Lives Matter movement and leading a fierce fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US. Trans women made headlines, front pages, and tangible societal advancements; from Hollywood changing its tune on casting cisgender actors in transgender roles, through to the publication of the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into equality for transgender (trans) people. And who can forget the Women’s Marches, which took place across the world to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration may have been one of the largest – and most peaceful – days of protest in history.
Yes, things might feel like a mess right now, but the issues we face only work to clarify the challenges we’re really up against as women and female-presenting peoples. A rallying cry because it’s time for a coup. This body isn’t a democracy, it’s a dictatorship, and I’m in charge.
[This article was originally published in DIVA’s May 2017 issue. Read my latest column in DIVA, on sale now at divadigital.co.uk]