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Killing with kindness

“Be kind” culture has abandoned adolescent girls

Artillery Row

Lesléa Newman’s anthology Eating Our Hearts Out, a collection of women’s writing about bodies and food, was first published in 1993. I had a copy at university and used to read it again and again. I was sane enough to know that my own relationship with my body was mad, and that the things I did to it were harmful. Still, there was comfort in seeing that mine was a mundane madness, one shared by countless other women, some of whom would eventually come out the other side. 

I recently rediscovered the book and was struck by how many of the stories of bingeing, starvation and self-harm began with the onset of puberty. One particular passage, from Michelle Blair’s “A Key to Happiness”, stood out:

Once I was asked ‘At what age is a woman most powerful?’ I imagined it might be sometime after menopause […] But no: my friend said a girl is strongest at eight or nine. It is then that she is invincible: body like a boy’s, tough as wood and attitude to follow suit. As the flower blooms, conversely her heyday ends and she is left to spend the next decades trying to create, not even from rubble, but from scratch, some kind of moving, of thinking, of being that is remotely comfortable, that is hers.

I don’t think this is wholly true; indeed, much of me thinks the first answer — sometime after menopause — is a better one. Nonetheless, this sense of loss during female adolescence has been noted by feminists time and again. It is real and it is powerful. 

“The little girl,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, “feels that her body is escaping her, that it is no longer the clear expression of her individuality”:

… “it becomes foreign to her; and at the same moment, she is grasped by others as a thing: on the street, eyes follow her, her body is subject to comments; she would like to become invisible; she is afraid of becoming flesh and afraid to show her flesh.”

Female resistance to growth — “[girls] do not want to eat any more; if they are forced, they vomit” — was linked by Beauvoir to this feeling that the body is no longer an expression of the self. It’s hardly a subtle point, but then there is nothing subtle about the enforced social transition from human subject to feminine object. Who can blame some girls for holding puberty itself responsible? It can be less painful to think that than to acknowledge the world’s new-found indifference to your interior life.

This week sees the publication of Hilary Cass’s review into gender identity services for children. The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the number of adolescent females declaring themselves to be boys — or, one might say, realising that their bodies are “no longer a clear expression of their identities”. Only in this case, we are not supposed to apply a Beauvoirian analysis to the situation. According to Wikipedia, rapid-onset gender dysphoria is “a controversial, scientifically unsupported hypothesis” (unlike, say, gender identity). There is apparently no obvious reason why, when presented with the opportunity to disidentify from femaleness entirely, many desperately unhappy girls will want to take it. Despite everything we know about misogyny and the trauma of female puberty, the trans activist line is that it is crass and invalidating to even suggest that trans identified females are simply girls who — with much justification — hate everything that female adolescence, as it is currently constructed, brings to their door. 

The people who support the use of puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones and, eventually, “gender affirming” surgeries for young females will tell you they are being kind. They are no doubt geared up to deem anything in the Cass report which challenges their position to be “hate”. They will have all of their false equivalences with 1980s homophobia at the ready. They think they have the perfect answer to young, female desperation. You solve it with drugs, needles, knives and slogans. If a girl doesn’t fit the world into which she is growing, you don’t change the world, or enable her to find a space; you help her to cut pieces of herself away. 

What I see in this position — and what I think we should be calling out more and more — is a total lack of empathy. There is no true kindness in it. There’s no curiosity, no compassion, no willingness to put oneself on the line for the sake of, what? Just some unhappy uterus owners. Just their sadness and their lesser female bodies. The assumption seems to be that if some female people are not buying into the whole femininity package, one might as well write them out of the girlhood story entirely. One has the excuse that they do not wish to be part of it, either. It’s not a good enough one. 

Set aside all the “protect trans kids” slogans, and what do we have? Traumatised girls who are told by the world that there’s nothing to be done. Their pain at being female can’t be resolved. Their discomfort never eases, and anyone who tells them otherwise simply isn’t taking it seriously. True pain, they are told, comes from within and it is fixed. Thinking that you might ever overcome it — that you could one day feel at home in the body that you have and are — is likened to believing one might grow out of being gay. As though these two things are remotely comparable. As if despising your own flesh is as natural as loving the flesh of another. 

I think it is obscene to respond to the agony of young girls by saying, yes, okay. If this pain is deep and enduring enough, we will wage war on your body on your behalf. Enough of the cutting and starving. We will drug you. We will remove your breasts for you. If all else fails, we might even help you to die. This is absolute capitulation to the idea that if you cannot cope with where your female body positions you — if you just can’t take it — that body is to blame. It lets everyone and everything else off the hook. It tells you that you are on your own. 

Right now, children’s publishing lauds books which essentialise female body hatred under the guise of trans inclusion. Criticism is dismissed with glib claims that “young people” or “youths” (never children) “know themselves” (any woman who ever recalls wanting to take a knife and slice off her emerging breasts or thickening thighs, take note). It is as if adults have forgotten what growing, development, time, even are. I have teenage sons. I am constantly struck by how intensely they feel, but also how rapidly they are changing. However much they know, they cannot know what it is like to be older. They won’t until they get there. The same is true for all of us. To observe this is no judgement on anyone. 

Most of the accounts in Eating Our Hearts Out come from women who did find ways to grow and live with themselves. The obvious response to that — from the self-styled “kind” people — will be that they can’t have suffered all that much. If their pain had an end, then it can’t have been comparable to gender dysphoria. 

In truth, I don’t find it hard to imagine many of the US-based contributors, had they been teenagers today, binding their breasts or being offered mastectomies or testosterone. Nor do I find it hard to imagine them defending the choice to take them later down the line: “it could never have been any other way. It could never have been better for me”. You might have to think that, once the decision has been made. You were always destined to have brittle bones, no sexual function, itchy scars. You have to tell yourself it could never have been any better, otherwise the sense of abandonment would be unbearable. 

I do think it could be better, though. Lots of us do, not because we underestimate the degree of despair, but because we don’t. It is laughable to think that anything is cured by the lazy rubber-stamping of female pain. “Let the boys have their porn and any girls who can’t hack it know where the door out of femaleness is” is not a reasonable way to treat other humans. Neither is “if you hate your body so much, we will hate it, too”. 

Girls — future women, whatever you call them or do to them — are worth more than this. If you can’t be bothered to consider this, at least stop claiming to be kind. 

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