I’m reflecting on Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett‘s piece in The Guardian yesterday about how she experiences serious self-loathing about her body and has a disordered relationship with food while simultaneously being feminist and promoting body love amongst her peers. Cosslett talks to Susie Orbach, who of course points out how incredibly pervasive distorted representations of women’s bodies are within patriarchal culture that feeds huge industries aimed at changing women’s bodies. Orbach questions Cosslett about whether she’ll continue to put up with it. Cosslett writes:
This question stuns me. I wasn’t aware that not putting up with it was even an option. “Become a refusenik!” she says, and I want to: I really want to.
Part of the complexity of Cosslett’s issue is that it feels shaming amongst her feminist, educated peers to admit that that eating is so problematic for her. She says:
I was embarrassed, and furious, that I couldn’t seem to escape the cycle of self-loathing that I have railed against so often as a writer and editor.
The complexity of striving to adopt a feminist positionality in a context of both a subculture of feminist peers and pervasive messaging within hetero-patriarchial culture stuck a chord with me. There are a multitude of behaviours and heavily compromised “choices’ that we negotiate everyday in-between the poles of patriarchal subjectivity and what might be an idealised feminist subjectivity. All of which do not contain actual, equal, possible choices, because the social terrain we fight them on is so uneven. Should we have children? If so, can we raise them with pro-feminist consciousness but still have them invited to birthday parties? Should we ‘choose’ to be married, de facto, monogamous, same-sex monogamous, polyamorous or single? Should you shave your legs or not shave your legs? Can you ‘choose’ whether to lead in a male-dominated profession or fiercely advocate in a feminised profession; or stay-at-home doing hard nurturing labour with your pro-feminist genderqueer child; or not work within the capitalist system? Do you only fuck feminist-identified women; or only fuck feminist-identified men; or try to change the misogynist ideas of the man you end up fucking? I mean, none of these are really, in practice, experienced as “choices” because often our decision-making is so compromised by the plethora of intervening factors. And yet, they can induce self-judgment. There are many, many times when I’ve felt like I have failed at being a ‘good’ feminist.
Feminism is probably at it’s least useful when it becomes another means for women to police their own behaviour or other women’s behaviour in relation to a group ‘ideal’.
To draw on West and Zimmerman’s (1987) well-known paradigm of ‘doing gender’, it’s worth pointing out that the heteropatriarchial gender system works in part through ‘accountability’. The concept of ‘accountability’ is that when we make decisions about how we ‘do’ gender we know we are being held accountable to gender norms. There are privileges or ‘rewards’ for doing gender in a normative way. There are punishments when we don’t. Wanting to be ‘a good girl’ – or be valued in our culture – goes to right to the heart of ‘being’ a girl. Our early gender ‘interpellations‘ where we take on what it means to be gendered are often really about a desire to be good or loved.
So what happens if Cosslett takes on Orbach’s advise and becomes a ‘body image’ refusnik? It might mean she loses the some of the rewards she currently experiences for being thin. She might not experience the same level of praise, attention, desirability, be invited to the same parties, be able to wear the same clothes, or have the same sexual and romantic relationship options. She is likely to experience social policing and punishment for being fat. She might have friends, family and even strangers commenting on her body. She might be seen as less professional, not be promoted or not be employed. None of these outcomes are fair. All of these possible outcomes are misogynist. But they are realistic outcomes of not being compliant with body norms.
When I was in my early twenties I had disordered eating. Not because of adopting normative body ideas, but because the impact of non-consensual sexual acts in my teenage years made putting anything inside my mouth feel physically repulsive. I struggled with self-loathing, but I experienced an ongoing stream of praise from friends and family members and lovers about how good I looked. Thin meant beautiful. As I went through recovery and my body finally settled on being about a size 14 instead of a size 10, I stopped getting praised for my attractiveness. In my case, being on the other side of the terror I felt around eating was worth it but there was still a social cost for me.
There’s an interesting, complicated, old-fashioned feminist idea called ‘patriarchal bargaining‘ that seems useful to play with here. Patriarchal bargaining was a term coined by Kandiyoti (1988) when women fit in with a patriarchal norm – accepting a norm that disadvantages women overall – in order to increase their own individual power. So in this case, women might adopt beauty practices that continue to promote the hierarchialisation of women based on their bodies, because in reality it gives them more access to wealth or desirability on an individual basis.
It’s a useful idea, but it seems a little harsh when we consider what our options are. Isn’t that really what we are all having to do most of the time? Sometimes gaining status through privileged femininity might feel like ‘any means necessary’ when you are still socially devalued because of your gender, class and race.
So I propose the concept of ‘feminist bargaining‘. Feminist bargaining could be when you have feminist beliefs but also know you have to survive in hetero-patriarchal culture. So you make decisions about where you can live your feminist beliefs, and make decisions about how to survive when you can’t. And really this looks like a series of compromising negotiations with hetero-patriarchy, where most of the time hetero-patriarchy wins because it’s a powerful system of meaning-making supported by global capitalism, not just your high-school dean or your mother. In fact, some of the feminist bargaining you do in some areas of your life probably make it possible to fly the feminist flag in others.
You have to think about whether you are adopting particular practices to survive hetero-patriarchy, or whether you are adopting them to keep thriving while others experience violence or extreme marginalisation on the same scale. I think wealth is a good example here. Are female CEO’s of multinational corporations good feminists? I would say no. Even though they might be using masculinist tactics to swim within the corporate system; it is still too abhorrently unethical. They cause too much harm towards poor, working women, the environment, and other marginalised people.
If nothing else this issue reveals how limited the terrain of individual feminist decision-making is. When we think of feminist actions as the decisions we make in our individual lives, we are clearly facing an impossible tide. We need to move beyond neoliberal versions of feminism focused on the transformation of the ‘self’ – where feminism becomes just another way to govern your own body – to collective actions and goals.