Friday, June 29, 2012

A total and hairy non-issue

The whole point of me setting up this blog (okay, one of the many points, but that doesn't rant as smoothly) was to attempt to discuss some rather hard-hitting feminist issues from my perspective. So this post being about body hair really seems rather inane. But I admit to having a bit of a fondness for this topic and therefore will be discussing this rather fluffy issue, just for the hell of it. I promise to include a bit of "smash the system" just so you know I haven't been hacked.

This week, my attention was drawn back to the question of hairy scary women after reading this article. It seems young Irish PhD student Emer O'Toole has been causing quite the scandal in the UK media after ditching her razor in a frenzied fit of feminism and then proudly showing off her hairy pits on national television. I loved it! I didn't just love Emer's defiance and resolve, I loved the fact that people felt the need to take to social media and have a good old chin wag about the "issue" to the point of where Emer managed to get an 80% disapproval rating for her pits. Helpful comments on the original article included "YUK !!! If her 'pits look like that I'd hate to see her lady bits", and "Depends what you mean by acceptable. No time soon is it going to be accepted as being attractive. Since the dawn of time body hair on a woman is perceived as unattractive". Clearly Emer stirred up a bit of a hornets' nest here, but if you ask me, it's pretty damn sad that she was able to.

My own personal journey with depilating is probably similar to other women, particularly in western countries. I had grown up noticing my mother shave her legs, and seeing women with smooth legs on TV and all around me, and at what is probably a ridiculously young age (about 8) I deemed my own legs too hairy and shaved them for the first time. I cut them to bits with Dad's rusty old Gillette Blue 2, and didn't try that again for another year or so. I'd call my "need" to shave an "unconscious social intervention" as it was based on observation and "normalising messages" hitting me from a very young age. But what was a completely conscious one was when mum took me aside at about 11 or 12 and showed me how to shave my armpits. From that point onwards, I was paranoid of raising my arm if I hadn't shaved. It wasn't mum's fault as nearly every girl in my school seemed to be in the same boat, if not then, then over the coming years.

It was when I was about 16, coincidentally when I first declared myself a "feminist", changed my title to Ms. and swore against marriage that I also started questioning this ritual. My wonderful male friends were also mainly engaged in hair removal routines by then, but I noted that their routines only seemed to consist of the face, and even then they were free to experiment somewhat, with some growing what was affectionately termed "bum fluff" on occasion. Maybe there was more depilation that they weren't telling me about, but regardless, I doubted it was anything like the routine I was in (unless they were body builders or swimmers, perhaps). Anyway, I was still at high school then, so I didn't rock the boat too much on this issue, although at an open microphone session in year 12, I did do a talk on feminism where I instructed my fellow women to ditch their razors. But I digress.

Anyway at Uni, I started "rocking the boat" a bit more. School uniform was ditched for cheese cloth, protest tshirts, hemp and boots and the razor got ditched for long stretches of time (I think the longest was 2.5 years). See, I met a couple of inner north hippies and some rather hard core feminists and so it kind of helped break me free of the "need to be" set and move into the "choose to be". But then uni's a bit like that anyway I reckon, or at least, with the freedom and choice available to me in so many ways, I felt quite liberated and broke out of a number of moulds. I must say too, I have to wonder if I was more readily able to be liberated because I had a fair experience of being on the "outside" and discovered I actually quite liked it... Nowadays, I still take the same sort of attitude towards that old teen routine, and when I have felt a little "need to be", I have recognised it and made a decision from there. But still, despite my active questioning of social norms, despite my need to rebel and break out, and despite my stances on so many things there are still times when I have felt a pressure to conform to society's hair-free expectations mainly because the pressure of being judged in a certain way is just not worth it. And that brings me to the sort of crux of this fluffy blog.

I have bored other women stupid (and many men too) banging on about this issue, but the fact is that there is a social expectation on women to remove hair that is enforced from an incredibly early age, and therefore it is understood by women that their body hair is unattractive, is unhygienic and should not be there. There are some common things women have said back to me that I relay for the purpose of breaking it down:

1. "I do it for me" or "I feel better if I'm hair free" - Firstly, how can anyone be really doing it for themselves if, firstly, there is a social expectation it will be done that has enforced from the time that they were little, and secondly, there is a chance, like Emer and poor Julia Roberts in this infamous incident, that you will be judged harshly if you don't? More to the point, why is your own body hair something that you don't identify with and it makes you feel better if it is gone? Where did that come from? So naturally, women will feel better if they are hair-free because it means reaffirming femininity, not being judged harshly, and removing the bad.

2. "It's unhygienic" - I believe this idea also comes from the people responsible for the idea that vaginas are unclean. Utter rubbish. Provided you have a shower and are not allergic to soap, personal hygiene is relatively easy to maintain. We need to look at some gendered notions here because if body hair really is the germ-festering menace that it is thought to be, then why are these hygiene messages confined mainly to women and why aren't men also shaving every bit of themselves in the plight to avoid germ warfare? I argue that through continual negative social messages of women's bodies and women's bits, women have, on the whole, interpreted certain parts of themselves through this negativity and understanding any body hair as "unhygienic" is simply a manifestation of this.

3. "It looks unnatural" - As the first article I referred pointed out, this resonates true. Why? Because through years and years of enforcing the unnatural as natural, the perfectly natural is viewed as being unnatural. Yep, we are so constructed that we don't even know what we actually look like nowadays, and apart from a couple of blips in the 70s and 90s, this construction just seems to be getting more extreme. Brazilian waxing is now so normalised that we are seeing it in TV shows such as Game of Thrones (far, far too often, but that's another post...) despite the fact that it is completely historically inaccurate. Hell, if Game of Thrones was set in 1994, it still would have been historically inaccurate by about another 8 years (a bit of an edge-trim was fairly standard then). Yet unless you're over the age of 30, it seems that Brazilian waxing is understood now to be normal (never mind that it was normalised initially in porn), and anything else is not. It's more of a strange time to be in that ever before!

4. "It looks awful!" - Related to everything I have written above. But why does it? Is it because the hair itself growing along quite happily is particularly ugly, or is it because, say, your bathing costume is cut a certain way that follicles poke out the side spoiling the aesthetic? Or pulling on a pair of thick woollen tights would spoil the look of your "little black dress"? Etc etc. Question fashion, and what it requires of women instead.

I am not being prescriptive here, and unlike when I was 18 years old, I am not telling women to ditch their razors in an act of defiance against the patriarchy (although that would be fun, and rather cost-effective too!). To return to Emer O'Toole, the fact that her body hair can even be news, and what's more, be discussed for pages upon pages is rather lame and to me tells a story about how harshly women are judged on something perfectly natural. It also raises the question: how many other perfectly natural things linked with women are also so harshly judged? It is striking that some of Emer's harshest critics were other women, and so if there is anything here I do want to be prescriptive of it is this: regardless of your "choices" when it comes to depilation, don't contribute to the idea that another woman who chooses to defy the reinforced social norms on body hair is wrong, ugly or unhygienic. Celebrate that she too is making a choice and instead work towards a time when hair removal for women is an actual choice because the ridiculous negativity surrounding women's natural hair growth is gone.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Surrogacy: Why I have "issues"

There has been a fair bit of coverage over the past week of the Queensland Govt's proposal to remove access to altruistic surrogacy for Gay and Lesbian couples, as well as single people and de facto heterosexual couples who have been all shacked up for less that 2 years. First up, let me just say, I do not support this proposal. I find it discriminatory and consistent with the acts of a government who is looking to erase almost all signs of diversity within its constituency. To apply a law then exclude certain people from a law based on who they are (or are not) sleeping with is discriminatory and needs to be challenged. For me, that goes without saying.

BUT, there is no alternate reality that exists where I will be championing the "right" for anyone to access surrogacy. It speaks volumes to me that of the numerous news articles I read on this, there were many quotes from the Australian Christian Lobby cheering this as a win for the rights of children, and counterpoints from civil rights groups highlighting this move as discriminatory and illustrating how gay parents were great parents as well, yet not a single article engaged with a women's rights activist nor a surrogate mother to gain that perspective. It appeared to me that the rights of women and women's bodies was yet again being eclipsed by the rights of children, the rights of right-wing lobby groups and the rights of prospective parents, although it's not like this is a new phenomenon, is it? Women's own rights over their bodies has been a central argument of the feminist movement for a very long time now, and the fact that once again they appear to have been ignored in this debate is something that really does not surprise me.

Here's why I have a problem with surrogacy, in a few dot points (we'll see...):

1. Women are not mere incubators of genetic material - Pregnancy has a number of physiological and psychological effects on a woman. It is a strenuous state that requires a number of sacrifices on behalf of the mother for it to be as successful as possible leading to the birth of a happy and healthy baby. As such, the idea that a woman can be sought as a carrier and eventual birthing machine for another human being really, in my eyes, dehumanises her and her experiences of pregnancy

2. Whilst it is illegal in Australia, surrogacy for payment is rife in other parts of the world and due to tight laws governing surrogacy here, there has been a vast increase in people using surrogate mothers overseas. One of the key centres for this is India, and as this article shows, the women engaged in to carry surrogates are usually quite impoverished, do sometimes bond with the children they carry and are subjected to rather extreme medical invention in order to ensure that they are successful in conceiving. What is not covered in this article is that there is also a lot of coercion that these impoverished women face, from families and partners in order to make some money, and a number of these women spend a good many years consecutively pregnant for other people just to try and increase their lot in life. Sounds rather exploitive if you ask me. In some parts of the US where commercial surrogacy is allowed, again the surrogate mothers tend to come mainly from lower socio-economic backgrounds and/or are of colour. The economic disparity that creates this market then is inherently exploitive. Even with altruistic surrogacy like in Australia, where there is no economic incentive and one might assume that this creates a less exploitive environment for surrogacy to occur, I still find myself asking whether coercion is a factor, and what the physiological and psychological consequences are because exploitation is not just limited to "economic" in my opinion.

3. On a point very personal to me, there are 200 million Missing Girls on the planet. There are orphans fighting for survival in war-torn countries, and there are children needing to be fostered for a number of reasons. As a woman who is already directly genetically-related to two children whom I adore via my siblings, and who is unlikely to be pregnant (for both political and physiological reasons) I've always seen that there is a different contribution I can make in my drive to try and make the world a better place for someone. There are a lot of children alone in this world, and genetic bonds do not always create "family". This is a point I put out there as a general point, and surrogacy is only one consideration in my stance on this.

I understand agency. I understand that some women may want more than anything to give someone else the joy of parenthood. I understand that a woman may feel incredibly empowered by this decision and like my personal stance in point #3 may also feel that she is doing her bit for the world. I am not questioning those individual stances or choices at all. But what I am questioning wholeheartedly is the situation we find ourselves in today, where a Govt can take a stand like this, and yet not a single thought with regards to these legislative changes revolves around the women involved in surrogacy at all. Something is very wrong with this situation, and women's rights cannot be secondary to prospective parents' rights nor to children's rights particularly when women's bodies are being regulated to produce these other "rights". I do wonder if women will continue to be invisible in the coverage on this issue until it reaches some sort of resolution in QLD. I hope not, because even though I have a rather hard-line stance, I would dearly love to hear more from radical and liberal feminist factions on these issues as they are debated, and I would certainly love to hear from surrogate mothers about their experiences. I don't know all, and my opinion is not omnipotent, but I DO KNOW that these voices are currently missing from the news coverage, and this is wrong.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Post #1 - Why on earth start an Aboriginal Feminist blog?

Here's the deal folks: I made an off-the-cuff comment a couple of weeks ago about how I might start a feminist blog when I finished Uni. So I have done exactly that. There were a number of reasons why I initially thought this might be a fun idea to explore, and in no particular order these reasons are:

1. I was worried that my brain would turn to mashed potato when I finished uni and wanted to keep engaged

2. In my final semester, I undertook a sexual politics course, and one of those lectures was on Indigenous women. I was rather stunned when the lecturer mentioned that Aboriginal women didn't tend to identify as feminists and this was due to us sharing the issue of racial discrimination with Aboriginal men and thus we felt solidarity with our brothers. Whilst elements of this are true, I have had the privilege of meeting a great many Aboriginal women who identify as feminists in my time, as I have done since my teen years, and if anything, I have noticed that Aboriginal women combine race politics with the more liberationist viewpoints of the feminist movement because of a commitment to overthrowing discriminatory systems (this is a sweeping generalisation, but...). Thus I wanted a space to explore this further and encourage others to do so as well

3. On the issue of liberationist viewpoints, I also feel out of sync with a heap of the contemporary feminist movements, which seem dedicated to rights of individuals and "empowerment" of women by adhering to the very societal things that are indicative of women's underclass status and referring to them as "choice". Frankly I find that boring and unchallenging, and wish to create a space apart from that. I was born in the late 1970s and because of that I straddle second and third wave feminism, but the additional layer of race politics makes me identify more with the liberationist ideas contained within second wave as feminism back then, as well as Aboriginal politics, was NEVER about merely assimilating into dominant groups

4. I am looking at doing my Masters or PhD on Indigenous feminist politics, so there is every chance that when I finally get around to submitting the paperwork for that (after a well-earned break first) this site may become a source of sanity for me. Or it may not as I may forget to write in it. Anyway...

5. I spend an awful lot of time posting articles on Facebook and commenting on them. This was a way of me expanding on those issues of interest without further clogging up the newsfeeds of others

6. As an Aboriginal feminist, I find myself teetering on the brink occasionally, and have been known to get into arguments with my brotherboys on a few things. For example, as an urban-dwelling, 30-something Aboriginal feminist and sworn spinster, I don't expect polygamous marriage (or indeed, marriage) to sit comfortably with me any time soon. The argument that "that's the way things were and you would have just accepted it" doesn't sit right with me because even if the traditions exist, I can't see my foremothers (I use that term in the broadest sense) not challenging them from time to time over the course of 60,000-odd years. I just find that idea too simplistic and am interested in hearing more. Additionally, through discussing this with other black women, I have had the privilege of hearing a few different perspectives from knowledges they have gathered and I have an interest in sharing those. I am also conscious that through colonisation, external patriarchal understandings have been superimposed over black understandings of our history, and there is a need to engage more with our "herstory" to better understand truths. So essentially, this is a space where knowledge can be expanded and shared and things like this can be broached for discussion.

I don't expect, or even want, this to be a space that only deals with "black women's issues". Rather, these are black women's perspectives on women's issues and it was interesting recently reading a heap of black women's writings from the 70s and 80s to see what they were challenging. Most were arguing that to separate race from sex was erroneous and that all women have a particular interest in engaging with both issues simultaneously to effect great change. Yep, I did tend to find a lot of the readings rather inspiring and I nearly forgot to write my essay because I got caught up reading Audre Lorde! But I digress...

I am hoping this will be an interactive space and it will grow into something. Not too sure if that's the case but I have written one post and feel that's something. I would also like to encourage others who may be interested in posting something to please let me know.