My Vagina Monologue

This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post here

I went to an audition today, for my university’s Feminist Society’s annual performance of The Vagina Monologues. I did really want to take part, even if I didn’t get a part in the show. As I sat there, through the door I could hear another girl reading. And then I realised I couldn’t do it. What follows explains why: this is MY angry vagina monologue.

I sat there, and I could hear her read. Not all of the words. Only one in particular stuck out, and shame jabbed me every time she said it: vagina.

I have been a bad feminist. I thought I’d come so far and I have tripped and fallen flat on my face at one of the biggest hurdles of being a feminist- hell, of being a woman. Why can’t I say it? Why can’t I say any of those words? They’re mine, these ‘things’ belong to me. But I can’t say them out loud.

Everything to do with THAT AREA of my body, all these years I’ve been taught that I’m not meant to talk about. They’re bad words, and you shouldn’t say them in front of people. At first, we all accepted this because we were young and awkward and why on earth would we ever want to TALK OUT LOUD to anyone about anything to do with genitalia (giggle)?

In primary school, the school nurse took us girls off to a separate room to explain the ways in which we could soak up the blood that could start spurting out of us any time soon. For one week every month at school, I was paranoid that I would stand up and be horrified to see that I’d left a smear of blood on my chair. When you couldn’t go swimming, everyone knew full well why, but still you told the teacher you’d forgotten your kit or ‘didn’t feel well’. Even amongst female friends, we used the evasive, yet effective ‘time of the month’ (sometimes shortened to ‘TOM’) or my personal favourite, ‘the painters are in’, instead of just coming out and saying what we all knew.

My human biology class in fifth year was the first time I felt like I had a handle on what was going on at ‘that time’, but out of the people in my year at school, few girls (and many fewer boys) would ever learn. Even then, it was all about what was happening on the inside on the woman’s end- never once did I see a diagram of the outside.

Once it became apparent that pretty much everyone was having sex, still nobody said a thing. There’d be gossip about people outside the group who’d apparently been ‘up to things’, who was pregnant, or who maybe had an STI, but we were still all too damn embarrassed to tell our closest friends about our personal experiences of owning a vagina.

Reflecting on all of this only clarifies the VAGINA SHAMING that I’ve been exposed to for my whole life. Maybe there’s something in the very anatomical detail of it being ‘hidden’ (compared to the penis) that means you’re just not allowed to talk about it. It goes along with the idea that women ought to keep calm and carry on, suffering from month to month from excruciating cramps that ensure they can some day bear children. The word ‘vagina’ and its associated anatomical terms are on that invisible ‘bad words’ list that somehow everyone knows exists. Vagina, labia, clitoris are all words just as descriptive as penis, testicles, foreskin, but somehow deemed so much more shocking and offensive when used out loud. Offensive to who? Men are allowed to openly boast about penis size, some even scratch their balls in public (which is disgusting, by the way), while women have to tiptoe around the fact that there is more between their legs than a space to impregnate.

So why shouldn’t we talk about it? All I am asking is that females are allowed an environment in which they feel firstly that they can use real terms when referring to periods and other vagina things. Secondly, they should feel able to talk out loud to others about these things. Finally, they should know they never need feel ashamed for having a certain anatomy.

It might take me some time to get over my squeamishness (and my upset that I even feel squeamish in the first place), but dammit, it’s my word and I’ll use it if I want to. I have a vagina. And that is ok.

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Starting out young: the dangers of Tumblr sexism

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post here

If you’ve been pretty much anywhere on the internet in the past year or so, you’ll undoubtedly have come across the phenomenon that is the meme. From Overly Attached Girlfriend to First World Problems via Bad Luck Brian and Socially Awkward Penguin, there’s myriad memes to suit every amusing social comment anyone could possibly wish to make. From time to time, new ones pop up with varying degrees of success.

One more controversial example sprang up in June 2012- an Instagram post from ‘Sabrina’ offered a pearl of wisdom to fellow females: ‘Girls, did you know that, uhm, your boobs go inside your shirt?’

You can view it here.

Several responses appeared, mostly on Tumblr, along with a handful of Facebook pages devoted to curating this meme-based ‘advice’.

What is now known as the ‘Hey girls’ meme calls girls out on their online behaviour. The most prevalent by far follow the message of the original, and instruct girls to cover up their breasts. Other popular slogans include ‘crayons are not for your face’ and ‘keep your legs closed’. By their very nature they impose a certain standard of behaviour on young women, implying that even online, where one can supposedly find freedom of expression, they must censor themselves, altering the way they act so as to render their appearance socially acceptable.

While some responses tackle the issue at heart, many seem to ignore the motivation behind the meme (hating the meme itself, not the ideas it promotes) showing how easily, from such a young age, people can fall victim to internalised misogyny. It becomes the norm, and their perception of gender roles, relationships and sense of morality are founded in ideas they are unaware of having picked up.

It’s easy to write these memes off as just another stupid internet fad, one of those which comes and goes and is replaced as quickly as yesterday’s viral video. But there’s more to it than that. The memes are symptomatic of the culture of slut-shaming rife amongst young people. Despite being a social group noted for progressive ideas about sex and relationships, antiquated attitudes are surprisingly common.

I grew up with words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ being thrown around by my peers, used in reference to both genders, but more typically slanted towards girls. Only a handful of boys gained reputations as ‘man-sluts’, and even then they tended to be held in high esteem and the badge was worn with pride. For girls, on the other hand, wearing certain clothes and make-up was enough to be branded slutty. It was always a shameful label, and any girl was free game for defamation.

Instead of being united against victimisation, young women themselves can be found pointing the finger. Many of the ‘Hey girls’ memes feature girls condescendingly offering advice to their peers. Rather than working together to stop women being unfairly labelled, they interchangably assume the role of ‘slut’ or ‘shamer’, perceiving sexual freedom for women as negative and perpetuating the twisted sexual double standard, where the labels of ‘prude’ or ‘virgin’ are seen as being just as shameful as being branded a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’.

While the impact of these particular memes was comparatively small, nevertheless they continue to be shared freely on Tumblr and other social networking sites, available for young people to see and be influenced by. They highlight very fixed views of how women should behave, the seeds of which, if left unchallenged, spawn a very regressive attitude towards women.

LADY PROBLEMS

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This is what I was reminded of following the comments about rape and abortion made by US electoral candidates, though it’s far from a laughing matter. Now I’m not big on US politics, but I know enough to realise these men are in positions of power (and, I think, remain resonably high up in the chain of command even if not elected?) so their views hold some clout, which is very dangerous.

I have no idea if they’ve really realised what they’ve said, and if they truly believe in their words, but it scares me to think that in a USA that wants to continue its reign as one of the most powerful nations in the world, there remains people with such antiquated views who could have the influence to make them a reality.

Just like Principal Duvall, these men have no real idea what they’re talking about. From their words it seems that, if these were put into action, the ownership women in the United States have over their bodies could again be restricted, and the clock turned back.

One thing the genders can agree on is that they have no idea what it’s like to be in the other one’s shoes. So why should these male politicians get to speculate over legislation which affects women much more profoundly than them, without asking any?

Given it takes a man AND a woman to make a child, when it comes to reproductive issues, doesn’t it make sense to give both genders equal say?

Lessons from the original ‘Cosmo Girl’

Helen Gurley Brown in 1964

I was saddened to read that Helen Gurley Brown died on Monday, August 13th. Earlier this year, I studied some of her work as part of a Modern History module. At the time it incensed me- I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Here was a woman praising the wonder of casual sex, telling me that being a single woman was the most empowering thing I could be… but that at some point I would need to get married. Because I just would. And when I found out she was responsible for the ‘Cosmo girl’, ooh, was I mad. Aside from more obvious things like atomic bombs and cars without seatbelts, the Cosmo girl has to be one of the more dangerous inventions of the 20th century. She’s still around today, promoting what can only be a projection of Gurley Brown’s own opinions on how to be a modern woman.

But when I heard she had passed away, something inside me thought that I ought to re-evaluate my image of this woman before I wrote her off completely, my own prejudices and preconceptions rejecting her ideas as firmly as those who read her original works when they were published.

In truth, Gurley Brown was, in fact, a very admirable woman. From a young age, she claimed, she knew that she didn’t want a typical life of domesticity. She sought a career instead, when the prevailing image around her was of young apple-pie mothers wrapping her children in cotton wool and making life comfortable for her hardworking husband.

You could argue that in her work, Gurley Brown undermines feminism, that in entering into the affairs she advocated, and by maintaining your appearance to specific standards, by default you are submitting to patriarchy. Indeed, the assumption that a woman should always be fashionably dressed and have a certain type of figure (dieting to obtain this if necessary) conforms to Western standards of female attractiveness that have, in the views of some, been imposed by men. However, I think this speaks more of Gurley Brown’s own inner feeling that this is how she should look. She continued to dress fashionably until her death, staying rake-thin and undergoing cosmetic procedures to stay what she deemed to be beautiful.

Criticisms aside, rage-tinted feminist glasses removed; there is undeniable value in Gurley Brown’s writings. She taught that a woman can support herself, make her own way in the world, and should do so without feeling bad about it. Gurley Brown herself went against the grain and paved her own way as a career girl, becoming the highest paid woman working in advertising on the west coast of the US. If that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what is. More importantly, though, she taught that a woman can, and should, have sex with who she wants, and again should do so without guilt.

The only real fault to be picked with Gurley Brown is in her use of erotic capital. If men hit on her, she would run with it. And why shouldn’t she have? Far from giving men what they wanted, she was getting what she wanted. She saw sex in different terms to those who were shocked by what she wrote. To her, it was an act both she and the man could gain satisfaction from with no consequence.

This idea was central to the sexual revolution, which was just taking off when ‘Sex and the Single Girl’, perhaps her best-known work, was published in 1962. The Pill was becoming more readily available, though tended to be prescribed to women who didn’t want any more children than they had already. Literary history showed men could have as many affairs as they wanted without consequence. Women were expelled from society, and even killed off (see Tess, Emma, Anna et al) for their exploits. In an ideal marriage, it seemed, the wife should cater to the husband’s needs and put aside her own desires in order to do this. But times, Gurley-Brown noticed, were a-changing. The arrival of this new form of birth control meant that in terms of sexuality, women could now be equal to men. Without the consequence of pregnancy, who was to stop a girl taking control of her own body?

To quote the woman herself:

‘The message was: So you’re single. You can still have sex. You can have a great life. And if you marry, don’t just sponge off a man or be the gold-medal-winning mother. Don’t use men to get what you want in life- get it for yourself.’

The likes of Germaine Greer and Kate Millett rejected the idea that Gurley Brown was a feminist, but, on reflection, I don’t think there’s any question that she was. How can a woman who stands up for the freedoms of herself and women around her not be a feminist?  Though her ideologies may not be as developed as the likes of Greer’s or Freidan’s, they touch on what I think is the key idea underpinning feminism: women have choices too. Should they so choose, they can have the same freedoms as men.

No matter what methods she employs, when a woman rises to the profile that Gurley Brown enjoyed for most of her life, you need to step back and look at just what it was that got her there. More often than not, underneath it all, you find a person who firstly wanted to change her world. As you trace her journey, you find that in the process, she has in some way changed our world. That is nothing short of inspirational.

RIP Helen Gurley Brown, 1922-2012

Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images, hollywoodreporter.com

i am woman?

After having been told by a friend, ‘You MUST read this!’- and finding it in WH Smith at King’s Cross, falling into the category of ‘the only decent book on offer’- I have finally read Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Be a Woman’. And in the process, although I didn’t magically become a woman, I definitely learned a lot.

At last I am more comfortable with the idea of being a ‘feminist’. For years I thought it was something I should be, though I wasn’t really sure how or what it really meant. As Moran rightly points out, the term is frequently misappropriated and misinterpreted. I myself was conflicted: should I burn my bras? Hate men forever? Begin plotting world domination?

It’s much simpler than that, it turns out. Moran asks, ‘Are you female?’ Yes, I am. ‘Then you are a feminist.’ Well, that was easy. The book claims that as a woman, it’s almost impossible NOT to be a feminist- to not be interested in issues affecting women, from the ‘big’ ones like domestic abuse, to, erm, smaller things, like the appropriate amount of pubic hair to have. I’m now encouraged to actually follow through on my long-postponed vows to read the great feminist texts. And some day soon I will no doubt be stood on a chair, proclaiming those all-important four words, twelve letters: I AM A FEMINIST.

Above all, though, what I got from the text – besides constant hilarious anecdotes – is that it’s OK to do what YOU want. That, as a woman, you have choices. That despite the attempts of society to stereotype and pigeonhole and condition, there is no one universal definition of what ‘woman’ actually is (aside from the obvious biological definition). If you don’t want to do something, then don’t bloody well do it. It seems like a straightforward ‘moral’, if you like, but to be told it in such frank terms BY ANOTHER WOMAN felt very empowering, and seemed to actually mean something.

It seems that being armed with a winning attitude and a refusal to see yourself as inferior to men forms the very core of being a woman. The rest are just accessories, things to figure out on the journey. Just remember to pack your sense of humour. If anything, becoming – and indeed being – a woman is a very entertaining ride.