Labias are in. More precisely, loving your labia is in – not the thing itself so much as its appearance (when it comes to bodies these days, is there any difference?). To be part of the labia-love clique you must luxuriate in its texture and dimensions, admiring its quirks and rejoicing in its uniqueness. Of course, appreciating your labia’s beauty privately violates a central law of bodily appreciation as we know it today: namely, strangers must admire your body part too, preferably online.
Now, I am slightly misrepresenting the online labia thing. The site that sparked a bunch of interest a few weeks back (and this post now) is http://lovebiglabia.tumblr.com/ and was started as a supportive forum for women plagued by self-loathing and shame about what they perceived to be non-average genitals as well as for general awareness-raising and embarrassment-lowering about female genitalia. The only comments posted could be from supportive quarters- this was not a free for all for “are you hot or not” abuse. To be sure such a site has a feminist angle: women are indeed under so much scrutiny physique-wise as well as subject to porn’s exacting norms that it’s not surprising so many find their genitalia a source of debilitating self-consciousness. This has bad ramifications in terms of emotional and sexual health (see, for instance, Melissa Goldman’s piece in Role Reboot.
But scouting around the site, I found the supportive comments didn’t really make me feel good. They seemed weird. There were various labia posted with enormous spans, protuberances and so on. It’s good that these women are able to demonstrate pride rather than loathing in their parts – but I found myself wondering why their pride had to be based on the appearance of their “large labia”. The acceptance of their bodies that women should work toward is not in my view about renaming body parts beautiful when they do not match certain norms, but about looking at things holistically, in terms of personhood. Rather than revealing their vulvas to the cooing support of other vulva-havers, it would be better if they could speak frankly and analytically about the experience and feeling and perception of their body parts and gain support in those discussions. It would be better if instead of making everything visual, which only reinforces the dynamic that got us here, there was work done on saying: “I am a woman, I do things, I am a person, I am a package, my body is a living organism, not a template, it’s part of me, take it or leave it”. Equally, the sort of men who make them feel rubbish about their bodies should be ejected in good faith. That’s what needs work. Needing other people to say that your labia is “yum” is sort of oh I don’t know. Or maybe that’s just me – I regard private parts as curiously private, maybe because I don’t watch porn so I don’t have the same familiarity with naked in-your-face-on-screen genitalia as other people. So when I scanned the site and saw all those lady parts that weren’t mine, I thought, ooh, eww, erm or a mixture of these. I don’t think it made a difference to me that they were big or droopy or whatever – it was more that they were in front of my face, in large digital colour.
My other issue with all this “my vagina is beautiful” and “vaginas are beautiful” stuff that’s become part of the feminist discourse is that in my view vaginas ARE NOT beautiful. NOR ARE PENISES. Out of action, they are just neutral, faintly unpleasant/ridiculous body parts, both of them. In use, they come alive, their meaning as a connectivity device capable of extremely profound transmission between people, of emotion, lust, kaleidoscopic vision, life, is what makes vaginas and penises “beautiful”.
It seems particularly unfair to insist that we all find our vaginas “beautiful” not just to those of us who do not (but who enjoy and respect its uses and value nonetheless), but to the vaginas themselves. It’s like asking the hard core working mother with three kids to prepare a Michelin-starred dinner after an 11-hour day in the office. The vagina has enough on her plate- must she also look like a million bucks? She receives tampax, specula, penises, penis-like objects, IUDs, moon cups and other objects. She puts out uterine lining and babies. In the same vicinity, pee as well.
In all seriousness, focusing on the appearance of genitalia seems to miss the point of it. What we need is a less visual body culture, one less obsessed with the appearances of parts, whether for critique, consumption or – in this case “love”. Love should go deeper, and that includes for the lips of the vagina.
I know issues about childcare and motherhood are complex and it isn’t for me to judge women on their choices- especially given the financial pressures of early childcare – the below is not a judgement, just a feeling based on limited observation. Anyone who would like to correct me or express an alternative view- I would love to hear it.
There are two big questions that have sometimes niggled as I pursue my patriarchy-busting course through life (and the Mphil). I have always shot them down when other people mention them but that doesn’t mean they haven’t continued to niggle a little…until recently.
One involves the biological differences between men and women. I’ve always disliked the notion of “hardwiring”, felt it to be in the main a justification of the status quo, but there was a little insecurity there – women have ovaries, after all, and the unique challenges that come with them. Women do appear to have strong urges to have babies and to mother, and worse – far worse – when I look around, there does seem a confusing dearth of women in maths, science and leadership. I never consciously admitted to myself that this was because women were worse at these things than men, but if I’m being honest I bet some dark and embarrassed part of me wondered about it, a bit. Especially as I myself am so crap at all these things. Well, luckily that dark and embarrassed bit need lurk no longer – it’s been entirely flooded in the light of GOOD psychobiology books such as Melissa Hines’ Brain Gender; Rebecca Jordan Young’s Brainstorm and of course, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender. Also by a new habit of mind I have: to take note of every quantitative woman I meet, or every instance of female quantitative flair and add her/it to my mental list of “exceptions”. The list, whose other part is composed of poetry-reading, dramatic, maths-phobic men, is now very large. So: the good news is this! Women are not worse at abstract thinking or math or staying calm or leading or whatever because of anything inborn. It really is society wot done it. Now we just have to work out how to fix that.
The other niggle is the mother versus career question. I have always been quick to claim that motherhood is no excuse for giving up work, tumbling off the career ladder and staying at home busying yourself with the niceties of children’s parties and school runs. But then I thought- well, maybe motherhood does exert an influence on women I have yet to experience. Maybe they really are happier and better off choosing the home instead of the office. Maybe the challenges and rewards of housewifery and childrearing really are equal to those of the workplace. Maybe….
But once again I am happy to say that this niggle has been laid to rest. Betty Friedan – albeit criticised for the white middle-class leaning of her work – appears to be right. I have met three women in recent weeks who gave up work to play mother and wife. All three have high-earning husbands (often the pre-requisite). All three were slightly defensive about their choice to give up work. But in all three cases, it was only a matter of minutes before they started to say things that made my stomach turn. Things like: “Sometimes I miss using my brain” or “I go crazy without anything challenging, which is why I do some part-time work with my friend- just to keep me sane”. For this woman, work was a sanity tactic- which is better than nothing. But it had nothing to do with the work itself- it could be anything (she’d been through a long slew of disconnected posts, which- as soon as they started to be demanding or result in promotions -she left). She’d done a degree in medical history yet when we passed an exhibit in front of the History of Science museum in Cambridge she looked bored. One woman seemed to have resigned herself to the life of the home and to looking after kids aged 12 and 14 who probably would rather she was off kicking ass instead of waiting for them to need her. Another – a friend of my mother’s – treated me to lunch in London one day. She picked me up in her Jag and off we went. But immediately she seemed distracted. This distractedness, when queried, seemed related to a recalcitrant manicurist; still-unbooked flights to LA to visit her sons; a drinks party later that night for which she needed to rest and change and a general sense of “being so busy” that didn’t seem founded on anything but a long list of lifestyle boosts and pampering duties.
In the company of each of these three women I felt depressed. I felt I couldn’t really have a decent conversation with them about anything that wasn’t logistical or to do with small talk. Being in the middle of a brain-taxing course seemed a source of potential acrimony -nothing outright -but I felt that to discuss anything with an academic or work-related edge would be tactless. Mostly, I felt bad for these women. What had they to distract from the endless project of themselves and their families’ wellbeing? Only more consumption. I couldn’t help but feel that in keeping their time free to be good wives and mothers they were missing the thing that would have made them happy and more exciting as individuals, and through that, better wives and mothers. Namely, a career.
A quick dispatch from Seoul, in the form of interesting things I’ve learned since landing here on Thursday morning.
Transport is almost excessively well supplied, clear and functional. On arrival in the airport, I asked for the KAL Limo and was pointed towards a well-marked door where, indeed, not just one KAL limo drew up but a different one every two minutes. A nice man told me which one to wait for that would take me directly to my hotel: the 10:52. Iwas the only passenger in the spacious leather-seated bus, yet the charge for the hour’s drive from Incheon Airport to the heart of Gangnam was only 15,000 won – about £9.
The subway is my new hangout. In most foreign cities, not speaking the language or reading the characters makes taking enormous underground systems through megalopolises too daunting for words. Yet the Seoul subway is pleasantly clear: English where you need it; good signage; nice machines for dispensing tickets, and a map that reminds me of London’s – huge and sprawling. Nobody stares at you making you feel stupid and weird, either. As for the trains: they are frequent, spotless and very wide. A pleasant trumpet tune announces the imminent arrival of each. There are TVs in the cars, with the next stop announced in Korean and English, written and spoken, as well as the lines you can transfer to and their colour coding (eg “line number one, the dark blue line) – otherwise, you can enjoy scenes from Korean history relevant to the spot, makeup ads etc. Also curious but kind of cool: people stand without holding onto the numerous shiny handles provided, in a very straight line facing the seats. The subway costs £1.20 for a ride of 45 minutes, with no extra charge for the people watching. Everyone, but everyone, is engrossed in their large Samsung Galaxy Notes.
The food is unbelievably good, as you’d expect of a culture that openly fetichises it (who knew?) and insists on garlic and chilli with cabbage (kimchee) morning, noon and night. In Korean, after saying “hello” you don’t say “how are you?” – you say “Have you had breakfast/lunch/dinner?” There is a massive, diverse and eternally tempting street food scene, whether you fancy sweet and spongy and hilarious “fish breads”, chilli-smeared rice cakes with fish squares, deep fried seaweed-wrapped rice, tofu sweets, dumplings or green tea pancakes. Wagyu beef Korean BBQ for $30 a head goes down a treat too, especially washed down with local beer, large green leaves like steroidal nettles, fried egg and beansprout salad. Posh dinner features milky broths of transcendent delicacy, paper-thin green tea pancakes with grated mushrooms and radish, and the most insanely good beef stew, called bulgogi, I could imagine. (“Mine’s the bulgogi!”)
The bathouses. A bathouse is a place to go where you can do lots of things communally (only communally). These include a)soak butt naked in green tea, b)get scrubbed butt naked in front of everyone, c)get your whole face threaded under two weird lamps next to butt naked women walking about buying things and drying their hair d)sleep as long as you want on yoga mats, possibly drunk e)purchase potatoes and yams and then go roast them on coals IN the sauna f)get your fortune told, g) get nail art done, h)get cupping done all over your body while wearing a mask that will make you look like a dead person or grotesque mannequin, i) play arcade games, j) listen to a lecture on posture, k) eat at a restaurant, l)get a massage.
“Feminism” is back in the limelight – obviously. Caitlin Moran, daily Guardian comment pieces, Indie pieces, Seth Macfarlane boob video backlash, Beyonce body-show analysis, widespread coverage and analysis of International Woman’s Day and last week (though it could be any week), a debate over whether feminists could be funny in their anger, or if humour is about trying to be liked by patriarchy… Even being a not-feminist these days is a stance that puts you in direct relation to feminism. Feminism, feminism, feminism, feminism, bleminism, memenism…sometimes, if I’m honest, the word goes blurry – though I admit that I’m inordinately lucky to be seeing it enough for that to happen.
But I am concerned. For feminism. For women. For the world. Because the word “feminism” is fast losing its power and clarity as a conceptual umbrella. It has come loose from its meaning – that is, its history, context and clout and is now floating, balloon-style, into the ether. It’s a word we know expresses a belief in equality for women, and, that ‘women are people too’. But it is ever more fragmented, spun ever thinner as the 360-degree, 24-hour content demands of the digital press cycle put more strain on it. In the past hour or so, I have read articles by five women on feminism and anger, feminism and humour, feminism and singleness, women and patriarchy. Last week I attended talks on Feminism as a Global Term (Melanne Verveer, Obama’s women’s ambassador) and on the importance of the term/thing itself (Jude Kelly, head of the South Bank Centre, and Rachel Holmes, editor of Fifty Shades of Feminism). The talks – all given by speakers with peroxided blonde hair, interestingly – champion “feminism” and express outrage at women’s plight. The articles rage at “injustice”.
But there is a serious lack of inspiring rhetoric outside the increasingly stale and over-used catch phrases of the dominant journalistic and UN discourses. Melanne Verveer went on and on and on and on about one very simple though important point, so blindingly obvious to me that I am certainly missing something (else how could she have spent 50 minutes repeating it?): namely, women’s rights are human rights and vice versa. By the end I felt like I was hearing something like this: “women rights human human right women’s rights rights wrong human women”…
It is an awful and scary thing when the very words we rely upon to convey real meaning with an important mission become emptied out, cliched and consequently ignored. The digital news cycle and world of blogs, everyone desperate to get their two cents out there (myself included), ensures that what might once have been words with a slower burn-rate and richer meaning are now sizzled up like imploding stars. Devoured and then spat out, useless.
Meanings erode when the words meant to encapsulate them get too big and vague; when the word lets them down by taking on too many. In the West, we use “feminism” repeatedly as a kind of catch-all for all injustice done women, though actually we aren’t really thinking of Kenyan tribeswomen beaten daily. We’re thinking of us. But even with “us” – who is “us”? Which is to say, “feminism”, even when expanded to denote a global basket of issues, or even a national basket of them, does not necessarily expand in meaning – rhetorical, semantic or otherwise.
I get the impression that in the West “feminism” is a different tool, with a different use, than in other parts of the world. We use it to hold society and individuals to account over pay gaps, terrible maternity care arrangements, sexual harassment, pressure to be thin/pretty/sexual etc, (illegal) domestic violence etc. In the West, in all those talks, all those articles, there are fights over what “feminism” should mean, who is practicing it and who is abusing it. There is talk of a nebulous “patriarchy”, there are “women”, there is “mysogeny”. There is anger. There are feminists criticising other feminists.
But in countries with the most awful condoned systemic violence against women, use of the word “feminism” may well be a luxury that people trying to stay alive and out of terror might not find terribly useful. I don’t know how often “feminism” is spoken of in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, bits of Pakistan.
So the word is in meaning-crisis. I’d say that if anything has killed off its semantic power, it’s the lack of specificity. In Verveer’s talk, for instance, genital mutilation, domestic abuse and Western pay gaps were bundled together into one smorgasbord of urgent female injury. It’s impossible to move under such a weight of different issues affecting different people in different ways. One literally does not know how to proceed. In the 1970s, there were clear objectives. Very clear. End discriminatory employment policies, get abortion rights, make rape illegal. Consciousness raising to help do this. Knowing how to progress meaningfully without such concrete, judicial goals can be tricky. We end up rowing about whether Beyonce’s Superbowl show was demeaning to women.
If I felt strongly that after a week of Women’s Day oriented talks and articles that “feminism” is like a food people have put on their forks and are simply moving round the plate in different ways, then I do hope the word has retained meaning elsewhere and thus the potential to create change. But I fear that without some serious conceptual work – where is the word from, what has it meant, what are its different meanings today, what SHOULD it mean, who is getting it wrong? – it’s going to flounder. And “women”, feminism’s object, will suffer. Again.