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The female body is the new short skirt

What is being done to some female bodies is changing what all female bodies mean

Over a decade ago, the writer Laurie Penny described a woman’s opinion as “the short skirt of the internet”. Regardless of whether or not they agreed with her, everyone knew what she meant. The short skirt stood in for some feature — an item of clothing, a way of moving, a comment — which would be used to suggest a woman had been asking for any abuse that came her way. If she didn’t want it, so the abuser would claim, she shouldn’t have worn the skirt. The feminist response — repeated so often, so without question, it became quite boring — was that a woman should be able to wear what she liked without anyone assuming she wished to be abused. 

I miss those days. Today’s short skirt is the female body itself. What’s more, plenty of feminists have moved to the side of those who feel it is perfectly fine to judge any woman who leaves the house physically intact. If you don’t feel like an object — a pornified blob whose self is necessarily “sacrificed to make room for the desires of another” — you could always hide your femaleness. Bind your breasts. Better yet, have them removed. If not, why shouldn’t it be presumed that you’re flaunting your feminine gender identity for all to see? 

When actor Liv Hewson appeared breastless at last week’s Emmys awards, I tried not to think about it. People — especially female people, especially those in Hollywood — do all sorts of things to manage discomfort with their bodies. For so many of us, it is impossible to feel comfortable. I don’t feel comfortable. I know — having had various body shapes in my childhood and adult life — that breasts are read as an unspoken “yes”, an agreement to be objectified, an indicator of intellectual inferiority. That the body itself is not to blame is something about which feminism used to be clear. 

Now, I am not so sure. ‘Who’s afraid of Liv Hewson?’ asked Teen Vogue in a piece from last year, which recounted how Hewson’s anorexia was “in part a result of gender dysphoria” — that is, Hewson had been foolishly starving markers of femaleness away instead of sensibly having them surgically removed. I am not afraid of Liv Hewson. I am, on the other hand, terrified of this narrative. I am terrified that this marks the full-on normalisation of the female body as short skirt, the absolute, unquestioned acceptance of body hatred as something you must demonstrate through body harm, otherwise you’re just not serious. Come on, Teen Vogue readers are told. You love it really. Get your feminine gender identity out for the lads. 

When feminists claim that this will not last — that the testimonies of detransitioners, the whistleblowing of gender identity clinic staff, the court cases of former trans children will expose a full-on medical scandal — I want to believe them. What I fear is that yes, there will be a scandal, but the embedding of this particular message about the female body, deeply intertwined as it is with mainstreaming of a porn-based definition of “woman”, is here to stay. It is an extension of what has already happened with the cosmetic surgery industry, now gleefully repackaged as another form of “gender-affirming care”. 

When it comes to cosmetic treatments, things which seemed horrifying a few years ago … have become completely mundane

When it comes to cosmetic treatments, things which seemed horrifying a few years ago — having poison injected into your face so you can’t smile or frown? It’ll never catch on! — have become completely mundane. The bizarreness of it all, and the sex imbalance (according to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, women have 93 per cent of all surgical procedures), are no longer commented on. As Naomi Wolf wrote in 1990’s The Beauty Myth, “new possibilities for women quickly become new obligations. It is a short step from ‘anything can be done for beauty’ to ‘anything must be done’”.

If you are thinking “but that’s Naomi Wolf, the ‘bad’ Naomi, now famous for saying all sorts of crazy stuff”, yes, I am aware of this. On this particular topic, though — and despite the dodgy statistics of The Beauty Myth — she was incredibly prescient. “The Surgical Age,” she wrote, was being celebrated as “an unqualified good”:

It is the American dream come true: One can re-create oneself ‘better’ in a brave new world. It has even, understandably, been interpreted as a feminist liberation. […] With cosmetic surgery, consciousness inside the female body is undergoing a transformation that may mean we have lost the body’s boundaries, so recently defined and defended—and our presurgical orientation inside it—forever. 

She noted that “whether or not a woman ever undergoes cosmetic surgery, her mind is now being shaped by its existence”:

The expectation of surgery will continue to rise. Since the beauty myth works in a mappable balance system, as soon as enough women are altered and critical mass is reached so that too many women look like the ‘ideal,’ the ‘ideal’ will always shift. Ever-different cutting and stitching will be required of women if we are to keep our sexuality and our livelihood.

Or, one might now add, our very personhood.

As I argue in my book Hags, the increasing availability of cosmetic treatments has altered perceptions of what ageing women can and should look like. As an un-Botoxed middle-aged woman, I am conscious of being very much “factory settings” compared to the new ideal. As a former anorexia sufferer — someone who once did, but no longer does, navigate the world as a flat-chested adult female — I am also increasingly aware of my status as a “cis” woman, someone supposedly at peace with the unspoken “yeses” my body signals to the world. There are things I could do — starve, get injections, go under knives — and I haven’t, so what does that say about me? What does it permit others to do and think? There is no way to just be in a female body, and it gets harder and harder. Doing nothing at all, just trying to live and grow and age, is viewed, variously, as consent, entitlement, submission, female privilege. 

At one point in The Beauty Myth, Wolf notes the way in which “trivialisation and infantilization pervade the surgeon’s language when they speak to women: ‘a nip,’ ‘a tummy tuck’”. “This baby talk,” she argues, “falsifies reality.” Doesn’t it just? And now we have top and bottom surgery to add to the list. Cutting up healthy bodies is made to sound like nothing at all, so what’s your excuse? “When women talk about surgery,” she adds, “they speak of ‘flaws’ they ‘cannot live with,’ and they are not being hysterical.” It’s life-saving treatment, and so very minor. If this sounded a little overblown in 1990, does it sound that way today? Gender-affirming care — and remember, traditional cosmetic surgery counts too — is now freely described as suicide prevention

Not everything that is medical and scandalous becomes a medical scandal. This is true of cosmetic surgery, which sails through self-contained outrage after self-contained outrage without anyone joining the dots. It’s also true, I think, about some areas of psychiatric treatment, whereby severe side-effects of drug treatments become conflated with symptoms of the original disorder. Society adapts to the new regime, particularly in cases when those paying the highest price are those who are deemed to matter less anyways — ageing women, those with severe mental illness, autistic teenage girls. There comes a point when it is forgotten that things were ever any better. 

I do not wish to suggest that feminist resistance to what is happening right now is not having a tremendous impact. It is, and it will continue to do so. I also suspect that years from now, even if some elements of this madness have become a part of everyday life, there will be a growing awareness that actually, the feminists were right. There will be a grudging acknowledgement — as is the case, I increasingly feel, with anti-porn feminists of the seventies and eighties — that yes, those who originally protested had a point, but that ship has sailed and we are where we are, so best learn to work with it (I read The Right to Sex so you don’t have to). 

To stop ourselves from getting there at all will take a phenomenal effort. What is being done to some female bodies is changing what all female bodies mean. “Around 1990, technology introduced the end of the woman-made female body,” wrote Wolf. “A woman began to lose the luxury of taking for granted that she had a face and a body that were hers alone in which she could live out her life.” The solution to this cannot be to reject ourselves completely. All feminists should be able to understand this. Without it, we cannot even begin to claim ourselves back.

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