New Statesman: Birth wars: The politics of childbirth

Birth is divisive. It divides women from men, and women from women. It requires of the body an opening up, at times a cutting, or a tearing apart. “But to let the baby out,” writes Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts, “you have to be willing to go to pieces.”

So going to pieces is precisely what women do.

To be of woman born is a universal experience, yet women themselves remain a diffuse, fractured group. “What is a woman, anyway?” is still considered a deep, meaningful question to ask. The polite answer is, of course, “whatever anyone wants it to be”. More than that would close off the vessel, seal the hole, glue back together the broken shell. There’s a sense in which women are simply not meant to be whole. We need to be in pieces so that men can survive intact.

I have given birth three times and each experience has a different colour. For the first, I lay in the bedroom of our terraced house, staring at the brown wardrobe opposite, trying to think my way beyond pain. With each contraction I pictured a hill (“some women like to imagine themselves ascending and descending a mountain peak,” said the birthing guide) but it was grey, dull and unimpressive. Then just as the pain peaked, I’d see a figure emerging over the crest, a grey-faced man in a top hat and black overcoat. Jack the Ripper, eviscerator of wombs, an involuntary visualisation.

Read the full piece at the New Statesman

New Statesman: As pilots fight to pump breast milk at work, why is society so ashamed of lactating women?

People do not like to be reminded of the fact that human beings are mammals, members of the class in which females secrete milk for their young. It all sounds so primitive, placing us on a level with the beasts of the field. We’ve risen above it, haven’t we? All of us, that is, apart from those who still lactate.

Take the four female pilots who recently filed claims aimed at forcing their airline, Frontier, to make it easier for new mothers to pump breast milk at work. 12-hour workdays and five-hour flights are not, it turns out, convenient for the average lactator. One of the women had already received a written reprimand for pumping in an airplane toilet. Apparently this “raised safety issues” – but why wasn’t it thought of before?

Because nobody likes to think about the practicalities of breastfeeding, that’s why. We may live in a world in which every new mother is put under an inordinate amount of pressure to do it, but to consider the logistic and economic problems this raises? Hell, that would mean looking at actual business structures, and that’s difficult. Shaming women, on the other hand, is easy.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Thoughts of a person, with breasts

Breasts are curious things. They sprout on you, unbidden, transforming you from child – generic, self-contained, human – to woman, that cartoonish parody of a person.

The way in which they develop will influence the way in which the world receives you. Small-breasted women are bookish, intellectual, perhaps slightly repressed; large-breasted women are cheap, available, maybe a little dumb. Either way, growing breasts makes you fresh meat. It puts you on the market, regardless of whether that’s where you want to be.

I am a small-breasted virgin in the body of a large-breasted whore. A flat-chested non-binary in the body of a matronly ciswife. I have never quite been able to get the right personality in place to match my tits. God knows, I’ve tried.

For almost ten years I starved myself into almost-flatness, rolling back the first-girl-at-school-to-get-breasts humiliations of my final year at junior school. Then when I lost it – and lost it badly, so many cup sizes, almost running out of alphabet – I attempted to occupy my own space, sleeping around, taking sexist jokes on the chin, taking time to realise that one’s space is not a thing a woman gets to define for herself. Then there were the almost-breast reductions, two operation appointments turned down. I wasn’t sure what parts of me to keep, which to reject. I’m still not sure years later, stretched and tired by a third round of breastfeeding. My baby son sometimes moulds and plays with the flesh while he drinks, as though he’s handling plasticine. That’s what my breasts feel like to me: insensitive, roughly formed, shoved onto me while I wasn’t looking. A bad joke, a “kick me” sign pinned to my back. Continue reading

New Statesman: It harms women more than men when dads doing parenting are seen as “babysitters”

“Dads don’t babysit (it’s called ‘parenting’).” So says the T-shirt created by Al Ferguson of The Dad Network, in response to the assumption that a father seen caring for his own offspring is simply playing the role of temporary childminder.

The t-shirt has prompted a great deal of debate, not to mention marketing opportunities (you can already buy a “my dad doesn’t babysit” onesie for your little one). It seems more and more fathers want to be recognised as equal carers, and who can blame them?

From a feminist perspective, it’s easy to see why describing fathers as “babysitting” their own children is a bad idea. It lowers the expectations placed on fathers, putting them on a level with people who have no emotional ties to their children and are merely providing a service.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Announcement

<deep breath>

Hi! Most of you know me as a woman but today I’m coming out – as a human being.

I know this might be confusing to some folks but I’ve felt this way for a long time. It’s something I’ve found myself suppressing due to fear of violence, isolation, being told I’m an uppity bitch who deserves to die in a fire etc. But I can’t keep living a lie.

For those of you who don’t know, gender is a social hierarchy that positions people with vaginas as less human than people with penises. We get so used to this we rarely question the fact that some of the vagina-d people have an inner sense of “being human”. Certainly this feeling of human-ness is something that’s been with me regardless of the number of times I’ve been ordered to shut up, dress nicely, be a good little object for the patriarchy’s pleasure.

I realise a common response to women saying “we’re human” is disbelief. People think we’re making it up. It threatens the safe boundaries they’ve created, whereby there’s a nice, reliable class of people who’ll do the majority of the world’s unpaid work, suck it up and won’t complain. The violence of not being seen as fully human is painful (albeit not as painful as the violence of being hit in the face because you didn’t cook tea properly or being pushed up against a wall and groped for the crime of being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time). Ever since Mary Wollstonecraft first “came out” as human, other women have been doing the same, but there’s still a long road ahead of us before we’re fully accepted as complete people, with our own thoughts, feelings and inner lives.

Still, from now on I’d like you all to at least try to treat me like a human being – in terms of address, work, pay, respect, sexual and emotional expectations. Don’t worry if you slip up now and then – thanks to decades of female socialisation, I won’t hold it against you!

No party for non-men

In 1980’s The Sceptical Feminist Janet Radcliffe Richards makes the simple but important point that “it is quite misleading to think of masculinity and femininity as similar sorts of things; equal degrees of adaptation to different situations”:

In fact masculinity has traditionally been no different from general success in whatever is valued by society, and virtually the only way any reference to women comes into the concept of masculinity is in the demand that no man should be subordinate or inferior to a woman.

The problem for the feminist – and for women in general – is not with femininity per se. It is not that taken individually, so-called “masculine” characteristics are in any way better or more useful than “feminine” ones. It is that femininity functions within a system that places women and men under very different social pressures, the primary aim of which is “to ensure that women should be in the power and service of men”.

This is basic feminism. It makes no judgment on what individual men and women are “really” like, rather it points out that the idea of inherent differences between men and women has been used to facilitate male people’s oppression of female people. As Richards puts it, “much of what is believed about women stems from what is wanted of women” (submission, chastity, unpaid reproductive, emotional and domestic work).

Fast-forward 36 years and it seems we’ve forgotten the basics.  It’s not that we no longer use gender to extract resources and labour from one class of people for the benefit of another. Men still own the vast majority of the world’s material resources. Women still struggle for safety, visibility, education, reproductive autonomy, freedom from abuse. But for some reason we’ve stopped bothering to analyse gender as a social hierarchy. Perhaps it got too hard, or maybe it just got boring. Either way, these days it’s every woman – or non-man – for her/theirself. Continue reading

The right way for women to disappear

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that once you have anorexia, you never quite recover from it. It sounds too fatalistic, too hopeless and yet at the same time too self-indulgent.

I am 40 years old. It is nearly three decades since I was first diagnosed and I have been what is considered a healthy weight for most of the past two of them. While my eating habits are not necessarily normal, I would not describe myself as still suffering from anorexia itself. If anything, what I suffer from is not being anorexic any more.

I am not at home in the body I have. I’ve never got over the desire to tell people, the first time I meet them, that this isn’t the real me. The real me is thin, breastless, narrow-hipped. This version of me is a poor compromise, a pathetic accommodation. I look like a woman but actually I identify as a human being.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes the way in which refeeding programmes imposed on anorexia sufferers betray a desire to “normalise” women not just physically, but socially: “The general consensus is that the patient has recovered when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved.” Yet, she goes on to point out, “if the body protest statement could but be read – be it one of fatness or thinness – it would be seen to be one of the few ways that women can articulate their internal experience.” I look back on the force-feeding to which I was subjected and see in it a type of conversion therapy. Womanhood, I had decided, was not for me. I sought to roll back puberty and remain stuck in time. The medical profession said no, you must go forward. And so I did, but it hurt because the world I went into remained one in which femaleness and personhood are not always permitted to co-exist. Continue reading

New Statesman: One year on, has shared parental leave made any difference?

So it’s happened just the way we expected it to. One year on from the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, a study by the firm My Family Care has found that uptake amongst new fathers has been minimal. Of 200 employers interviewed, 40% reported that not one single male employee had taken up the right to shared leave. Many will see this as depressing news, indicating that differences in male and female roles and expectations are far too entrenched to resolve.

I started out an SPL sceptic, not least because the whole process was so complicated I ended up assuming my partner and I wouldn’t even be eligible. It turns out I was wrong and I’m now back in the office while my partner’s at home with our seven-month-old son. Being one of life’s moaners, I’d love to tell you it’s been a nightmare, but I’ll be honest: so far, it’s been brilliant.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Does Eddie Izzard like bananas? The Wibbly Pig guide to gender

My children have a book called Wibbly Pig Likes Bananas. In it, a little pig called Wibbly reveals his likes and dislikes and invites children to think about theirs, too. Do you, like Wibbly, like bananas, or do you prefer apples? Would you, like Wibbly, play with the ball, or would you rather cuddle the bear?

The message, as you might have guessed, is that we’re all different and that’s perfectly fine. I like this message. It’s a message with which I can get on board. However, I’ve started to wonder about the identity politics of it. If Wibbly likes bananas and hats and balls, is he even a pig at all? Continue reading

New Statesman: Cristiano Ronaldo’s approach to fatherhood is a victory for male supremacy

So, is he or isn’t he? Cristiano Ronaldo, 31, chose to keep mum while training for Real Madrid last week. The Portuguese heart-throb has been coy about rumours abounding ever since he was spotted flaunting a football-sized bump in a recent match against Celta Vigo. The unlucky-in-love national captain has been brazen about his desire to embrace single parenthood for a second time. Is he set to exchange 4-4-2 to become a 2-by-2? Will the broody forward, who’s spoken of his desire to have five or six little Cristianos, become international football’s answer to Natasha Hamilton and Ulrika Jonsson? Watch this space!

Wrote no one, ever (apart from me, just now).

We don’t write about one half of the population having babies in the same way we write about the other half. This is because babies are gestated by people who have wombs, not people who have penises. An obvious point to make, perhaps, but an increasingly necessary one. No matter how much the world changes, the fact remains that not everyone has the innate potential to carry a child to term. A person with a womb probably does; a person with a penis definitely doesn’t. This matters.

Read the full post in the New Statesman

New Statesman: Is it up to Jamie Oliver to say whether women should breastfeed?

Imagine if feeding your newborn baby were no more complex than following a Jamie Oliver recipe. Right, this one’s dead simple, all natural ingredients, you can rustle it up in a jiffy. Take one lactating tit – can be engorged, bleeding, mastitis-ridden, you name it – give it a bit of a squeeze then just whack it in your hungry tot’s mouth. Quick as you like, takes zero prep, how’s that for instant infant tucker?

Unfortunately, just as fighting poverty involves more than encouraging the poor to get rid of their “massive fucking TVs,” breastfeeding requires more than having a celebrity chef tell you it’s “easy” and grant you permission to do it “anywhere [you] want.” It’s all very well to say “we have the worst breastfeeding in the world” when the “we” means something very different depending on whether one is a lactating mother or not.

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New Statesman: Period positivity and treating women’s bodies as the norm

According to the writer Jay Griffiths, “the much maligned paramenstrum (defined as the two days before a period and the first two days of it) floods you with insight, with surges of instinctual thoughts, with demanding intensity, with burning innerness, thinking at full feeling”. This may be something you recognise. Alternatively, like me, you may find it a time for donning your ropiest pair of pants, stuffing your face on Wispa Duos and curling up in bed, nursing a hot water bottle and a sense of grievance that set in when you were 11 and has never gone away.

Just how the modern woman should approach menstruation has yet to be defined. Should it be something we celebrate, boldly, in defiance of age-old taboos that have held the female body in check? Or should we all just admit that periods are pretty rubbish, really, and bond over a monthly misery shared? Either way, the one good thing is we can be open about their existence. It wasn’t always like this.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

The Pool: Joan Bakewell’s comments about anorexia were harmful, but not surprising

Sometimes I look back on my youth and wish I’d had more problems. Been raised in a war-torn country, sent scavenging for food on the streets. That way, whatever else I’d endured, at least I’d have avoided suffering an eating disorder. As it is, I’m stuck being the kind of narcissist who wastes decades of her life on anorexia and bulimia (still, unlike some I know, I’ve not yet been self-centred enough to starve to death).

At least, this is the impression of eating disorders given by Joan Bakewell in a recent interview, in which she suggested that anorexia among young people “arises presumably because they are preoccupied with being beautiful and healthy and thin”. “No one,” she argued, “has anorexia in societies where there is not enough food. They do not have anorexia in the camps in Syria. I think it’s possible anorexia could be about narcissism.” Thanks, Joan. Good to know we only put ourselves through it because we’re worth it.

Read the full post at The Pool

New Statesman: Trousers for all: Why are girls still being required to wear skirts for school?

Who wears the trousers in your relationship? In my case, it’s definitely my partner. I’ve always been a skirt and dress person. Unnecessary cloth-based leg separation just isn’t my thing.

Nonetheless, while I question both the practical and stylistic merits of trousers and shorts, I will defend to the death the right of other women to make their own sartorial choices. For this reason I am broadly in favour of Trousers for All, a UK-wide group campaigning to give girls the option of wearing trousers as part of their school uniform.

While most schools already permit this, there remain a number who do not. This week, as part of The University of Manchester’s social justice festival JustFest, academics Dr Katia Chornik and Professor Claire Hale will argue that this is in breach of the Department of Education’s School Uniform document and The Equality Act 2010. “Both documents,” says Chornik, “emphasise the need to avoid uniforms which are expensive and which treat one sex less favourably than the other. In our view the practice of banning trousers for girls is gender discrimination and prejudice against females.” But is it really?

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True liberation needs to keep maternal bodies in the picture

Recent news reports have described the way in which a photograph of two men holding their newborn baby has been used, without their or the photographer’s permission, in an Irish politician’s campaign against same-sex surrogacy. Condemnation of this has been widespread and, I think, absolutely correct. The picture tells us absolutely nothing about whether same-sex couples are less equipped to raise children than heterosexual ones (they’re not). Even so, every time I see that photo there is something that seems to me not quite right.

It’s the face off to the side that bothers me. Is that the woman who has just given birth? How does she feel? Is she hurting? Is she still struggling to deliver the placenta while the camera clicks away? Does she feel a desire to touch and hold the baby, too? Hopefully she is fine, her pregnancy, her labour, all gifts freely and joyfully given. But would anyone care if she wasn’t? Would they have refrained from taking the picture in that case? Would they even know? Continue reading

New Statesman: Leap Day love: Once every four years, women are allowed to propose to men

You know the trouble with heterosexual relationships? One party desperately wants marriage and babies while the other doesn’t, and the lengths to which the former will go to tie down the latter are frankly staggering.

We all know, for instance, that straight marriage doesn’t offer women as much as it offers men. Getting married boosts men’s health and income, while the only thing boosted for women is the number of pants to wash. Women are more likely to initiate divorce and less likely to suffer ill-health as a result. Recent research has suggested that single, childless men want babies more than their female counterparts, hardly surprising given who pays the highest price in health risks, workplace discrimination and domestic drudgery. So is it any wonder that poor, needy men have been forced to come up with elaborate schemes in order to snare independent, commitment-phobic women? Otherwise what straight woman in her right mind would ever end up walking down the aisle?

For the full post go to the New Statesman

New Statesman: Paid surrogacy makes disadvantaged women into walking wombs

Last week, a national newspaper ran a piece on the shortage of people in the UK willing or able to sell a kidney.

“It’s terrible,” said one interviewee, a stockbroker forced to buy his kidney from an organ farm in Mumbai. “UK regulations need to change so we can have this service closer to home.”

Another customer agreed.

“It’s very distressing to know that if someone over here sells you their kidney, they can change their mind. The ownership documents aren’t worth the paper they’re written on as long as your kidney’s still busy filtering waste products in the body that grew it.”

Read the full post at the New Statesman

New Statesman: It’s not self-indulgent to prioritise choice in maternity care

I knew I should have waited a little longer before having my third child. According to the Times headline “Pregnant women get £3000 for private births.” Huh. All I got from my local NHS birthing centre was tea, toast and a shot of Syntometrine. Sure, the staff were lovely and my baby was healthy, but it wasn’t exactly plush. Certainly it was nothing like the Sex and the City-style shopping trip the Times imagines future mothers planning in response to Baroness Cumberledge’s National Maternity Review:

Home births, acupuncture and hypnobirthing would be offered by companies and midwife co-operatives in exchange for the vouchers as health chiefs aim to use competition to force the NHS to listen to women’s choices

Way-hey! Bring on the whale music and essential oils! It’s deep, meaningful birthing “experiences” for all, apart from those unfortunate enough to live in a poorly resourced area and just want your basic, no-frills, safe birth, minus any Primrose Hill bullshit.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

How to dress your son as a female character in Frozen

So this week I found out that I am just like the singer Adele. Not in the being any good at singing or having loads of money or attracting legions of fans way, but in the one way that truly counts: we both let our sons dress up as female characters from Frozen.

Turns out Adele’s son is an Anna. My middle son’s more of an Elsa, complete with a little plastic crown to hurl off dramatically whenever he gets to “the past is in the past” in Let It Go. I don’t know where Adele does her shopping, but my son’s blue dress and sparkly wig were £15 at Sainsbury’s (paid for by a grandparent, who then sent me an email expressing concern at my son wearing his new outfit anywhere other than at home. He’s since worn it twice to the school disco, with no ill effects). Continue reading

New Statesman: There’s more to supporting those with mental health problems than fighting stigma

According to a survey conducted by the BBC to coincide with its In The Mind series, the stigma associated with mental illness is subsiding. More people would be prepared to reveal a diagnosis to friends and employers. Ten years since the release of his documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry argues that things are changing for sufferers: “it’s more talked about […] It’s in the culture more and it’s understood more.”

This can only be a good thing. There’s no way of quantifying just how much the pain and isolation of suffering from a mental illness can be compounded by the fear of others finding out. Even now, I find it difficult to answer seemingly simple questions, just in case someone fails to understand or disapproves. What were your schooldays like? Why did it take you so long to finish your degree? What does your brother do? I am cagey, not least because when I do tell the truth, even the nicest of people are unsure what to say, leaving me to feel I should offer reassurance. Yeah, but I’m not mad now! Sure, he’s schizophrenic, but he won’t kill you or anything! Cue nervous laughter, and a relationship ever so slightly marred by the sense that I must now prove myself to be “normal”, an impossible task for any of us at the best of times.

Read the full post at the New Statesman