Most women hate their bodies. This is one of those boring facts that everyone knows and no one bothers to change. We half-heartedly order women to “love themselves” and “embrace their curves.” We encourage them to watch Dove adverts so that they may campaign for Real Beauty (while also worrying about ugly underarms). We eventually tell them fuck it, beauty is empowerment, why not embrace your self-hatred? Whatever we do, it’s not all that important since at the end of the day it’s all vanity. Hate away.
I can’t remember a time when I haven’t hated my body. Really, truly hated it, albeit in a way that I don’t tend to think of as hate (I think of it as “having a shit body” or “being a fat, ugly bitch” or in countless other ways which problematize not my hatred, but my body itself as an offensive object). At times my hatred of my flesh has almost killed me, leading to hospitalisations and force-feedings. I still wish there was less of me. Whatever my size I will always wish to be less.
When women like me shrink away, no one finds it strange. When we have our thighs sucked off, our breasts inflated, our cunts trimmed, we might find it an oddity – just about – but it will be positioned as personal choice. We don’t think of it as oppression. It is privilege and narcissism that makes us do it, a silly desire to be just like the women on the telly. The fact that we are susceptible to a mass of cultural influences telling us we should be bare, tiny and plastic is seen as weakness on our part. We are meant to overcome this (while also being bare, tiny and plastic, as if by magic, as if by sheer force of will).
In Redefining Realness Janet Mock defines cis as “a term used for people who are not trans and more likely to identify with the gender that correlates with the sex they were assigned at birth”:
Most cis people rarely question their gender identity because the gender binary system validates them, enabling them to operate without conflict or correction.
Has anyone who has been assigned female at birth ever been enabled to “operate without conflict or correction”? Don’t most cis women spend their whole lives trying to “become women”? I see this very much in the context of beauty ideals (amongst other things). Cis women do not get handed womanhood on a plate. On the contrary, most of us never escape the feeling of having failed.
We spend our waking hours trying to conform, trying to manage personhood, trying not to take up too much space. We have ourselves sliced and inflated, we starve ourselves, paint ourselves, rip out our body hair, binge, vomit, cry at the sight of our ugly thighs and flabby stomachs. We live our lives on hold, waiting to blossom, then watch ourselves become invisible as we age. We do all this without even noticing, let alone protesting. Our dissatisfaction with our bodies in relation to how womanhood is perceived is viewed as our problem alone. We don’t talk about it to anything like the degree to which most of us are thinking about it (that is, most of the time).
Cis women – primped, primed cis women – are not believed to have a problematic relationship with gender, or if they do, it is seen to be of their own making. Because discomfort within one’s own body is so embedded since girlhood it is not remarked upon, which leads to the assumption that cis women do not even experience gender sufficiently to be able to critique it. This is of course bullshit. It is there with us every day of our lives. It constrains us. The idea that cis women don’t ask questions because they don’t have to – not because they are oppressed in ways others simply view as normality – betrays a shocking lack of empathy. Transitioning from male to female is no more a dramatic or meaningful expression of discomfort with one’s own gender identity than having one’s labia reshaped. Yet one is considered so extreme it must betray a deeper engagement with gender as a fundamental truth, while the other is seen as just some stupid thing cis women do.
All women are gender non-conformists, every single one of us. We have to be because we are human, something which gender itself does not recognise. We have to challenge the strictures of gender in order to assert our own personhood and we do so in different ways, in accordance with the conditions of our own lives. Anyone who positions themselves above this — who believes themselves to be queering gender in a way that other women don’t need to – simply can’t be bothered to consider the specificities of other women’s lives. It’s privileged nonsense. When we starve, when we binge, when we hate ourselves for taking up space, we are negotiating the same old shitty relationship with women’s bodies in the world. We should not make light of it nor should we accept it as the best we can have. If we want all people to love their bodies – or at least to live in them without hate – we need the space to critique what gender is doing to each and every one of us right now.