Part 2 on women in the workplace. From fat to periods to dressing for work; the effects of misogyny on women’s bodies and self-esteem.
Hello! So, I know some of you are dying to hear all the juicy gossip from the sexism workshop I ran at Ladyfest Leipzig. No fear, I plan to fill you in very soon! But as I am also running the same workshop at the Antifee festival in Göttingen this weekend, I thought I would give you guys a summary of what I learnt next week. Do come say hi to me in Göttingen if you are around! And, for those of you who live in Berlin, there is a Femmepowerment workshop next Monday as part of TCSD. It’s gonna be run by some femme activist colleagues of mine and I think it is going to be great. I’ll see you there!
Lastly, feel free to get in touch with me and let me know if you agree or disagree with my theories, and why. I want to make this blog as interactive as possible, so feed me back! Phew! On with the ideas:
In part one on women and careers I wrote how we undermine our achievements in order to appear more socially acceptable. In a society in which we are still the second sex, women are taught to be modest and are habitually self-deprecating in contrast to a lot of men’s seemingly innate self-confidence. Men are nurtured from birth; women are not.
Maybe this refusal to encourage a woman to develop her abilities comes from a kinda ‘what’s the point’ attitude. I mean, women are still very much valued by our relationship to men. Our lives are only given meaning by our relationship status. You can see this attitude in the spinster shaming of successful single women. Wow, she wrote a book on feminism, became the CEO of her company, worked for the UN, but does she have a man? Lesbians, too, are not exempt from the pressure to mate. We experience a kind of second-best relationship pressure. It would be better if we were with a guy, but, failing that, anyone will do so long as we are in some kind of relationship! Cue false pity and ‘worrying’ about the woman who is happily single.
So, maybe in a world that only values women in relationship to our, er, relationships, we don’t bother to nurture the talents of our daughters. If all we are grooming are girls for is wife- and motherhood, there’s not really much point paying for violin lessons or a maths tutor, is there? I mean, you can’t be a touring musician or an astronaut and have a family, can you? It’s one or the other, and the family always wins.
“Wow, she became the CEO of her company and worked for the UN but does she have a man?”
I recently listened to a guest on BBC’s Woman’s Hour who explained that, of course women find it impossible to balance a career and children. The system was never set up for female workers in the first place! Whether or not this is completely true (I remember learning about whole families that worked in factories during the industrial revolution, and this probably still happens in the sweatshops of today), it makes a lot of sense to me. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about a system in which the most important years of your career fall at the exact same time most women have babies. Maternity leave is still only a temporary hiatus from the world of work (one year in the UK) and it’s not surprising that many women choose to leave their careers in order to care for their children for longer. It’s not only that childcare is extremely expensive, it’s also that of course you want to see your children grow up! Why do we have a working life that peaks in a person’s thirties? Why do we have a working day that ends 2 hours after school? Nothing about these structures is inevitable. They are all manmade.
Manmade. Ha! It’s almost as if the dudes are trying to keep us out the boardroom!
In addition to being excluded by the very structure of working life, it is pretty clear that women in the office stand out in other ways. Not only are we expected to be falsely modest, but we are meant to try and ‘blend in’ at the same time. How, exactly, we are meant to blend into an environment that is inherently foreign to us, I don’t know, but I am maybe I am getting too feminist theory on you guys here.
According to my imperfect knowledge of European history, the industrialisation of the working world created a system that depersonalised the individual. It was no more about individual skills, only the presence of a physical body. Any body would do. The invention of the conveyor belt and its innovative use in the manufacturing of Henry Ford’s cars is now symbolic of the extent to which capitalism just doesn’t care about the individuality of its workers. You only have to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s account of the Mexican workers in the US meat industry to understand that, to the big capitalist machine, individuals are completely dispensable.
“Women are are expected to be better than men and to look better while doing it.”
So it should come as no surprise that all workers in the office are expected to wear a uniform. For men, it’s kind of easy. Trouser suits and ties are made in all sizes and look kind of comfy. Women, however, are not only supposed to conform to a certain look, they are meant to do it with style. That’s part of the problem of being a woman. We are not expected to be as good as men, we are expected to be better, and to look better while doing it. Phew! And then of course we’ll be called vapid sexpots for it and not taken seriously. Oh, man, sometimes it sucks being a girl.
Women are caught in a double bind when it comes to appearances. We are fetishized as sex objects and expected to dress the part. Yet, we are routinely overlooked for promotions. It’s as if, in the context of work, we are not even seen. And this is after we’ve been made to stand out in the first place! And of course, this isn’t really about what we look like at all. Butches, who pretty much look like the guys (apart from being much hotter!), don’t exactly melt into the background either. They, too, are ridiculed for being women and then for being masculine on top of that. I mean, we really can’t win, can we?
Fun aside: I remember reading an article about butch dress sense in the workplace in British lesbo magazine Diva. I kept this issue under my bed as porn (shh! Don’t tell anyone!). Years later, I went on a date with one of the featured butches but it didn’t work out. And, no I didn’t tell her! Turns out pin-ups don’t necessarily make great dates after all.
I really believe that, faced with women in the workplace, the working world of men doesn’t know what to do with us at all. It sees us as a problem to be solved. ‘She’s dressed inappropriately, she must be mad.’ ‘Dammit, her ideas are better than mine, let’s laugh at her legs.’ It’s almost as if, threatened with our increased economic power and intelligence, they are desperate to keep us out. Ever heard of the glass ceiling?
“as a tall woman I often hunch my shoulders and slide down in chairs in order to not seem as big”
Industrialisation’s desire to make us disappear into the crowd affects all of us, men and women both. It comes from the depersonalisation of work by the mentalities of mass-production. However, women have it worse.
Women are asked to disappear in so many contexts. We are meant to dumb down, so we don’t threaten the dudes with our obvious intelligence. We are meant to fit into a dress code and simultaneously asked to stand out from it, and ridiculed for both these attempts. And we are meant to avoid, at all costs, the terror of being fat.
Women are always seen in terms of our physicality. To me, this seems like an excuse to not take us seriously on any level. Just think about the extent to which our bodies are abhorred. Fat, which is necessary for our health and an inherent part of the female body, is seen only in terms of how it can be made to just go away. Periods are, still, taboo. I remember how annoyed I was even as a child by TV adverts for menstrual products. In contrast to the loudness of the other ads that literally shouted their products at you (did you know that TV stations actually turn UP the volume for the ads? Listen next time.), these ads would suddenly be wordless and play soft musak while amorphous flowery (read feminine – argh!) shapes float on the screen and the word ‘period’ or ‘blood’ is never even mentioned. I remember being confused watching one particular advert because I had no idea what it was about until the box of sanitary towels came up on the screen at the end. Even these days, the ‘blood’ is still blue. I mean, what is that about? It’s blood. It’s natural! Get over it!
Fun aside number 2: recently, even after sterilising my Mooncup by boiling it after my period, the person I was staying with insisted on then sterilising the pan I had used again. Hello? I just sterilised it, you idiot! Yup, periods – and by extension all women – are dirty.
(See below for a hilarious spoof of tampon ads, albeit by Kotex, who are far from innocent in this respect.)
So women are physical, in touch with nature, dirty; men are intellectual, civilised and clean.
This abhorrence of female bodies extends to all the ways we are present in society. It’s no wonder that, being told we are unwanted in every way possible, women try to make ourselves as physically insignificant as possible. I have often been told that my wacky dress sense makes me easy to spot in a crowd, and I like that. However, as a tall woman I notice I often hunch my shoulders, sit in the corner and slide down in chairs in order to not seem as tall. When I see myself in photos, larger than my friends, I often cringe at my own bigness. The happy expression of my personality in loud clothes is counteracted by my own desire to make myself smaller. This longing to be smaller reminds me of what Princess Di said about her anorexia and bulimia; that she “just wanted to disappear.”
Although the desire to escape a world which is so misogynist is not the only interpretation of anorexia and bulimia, for me, that quotation has always made a lot of sense. It relates to the fact when the US clothing market introduced size 0 for women, it caused an uproar among feminists. Now that less-than-zero sizes are available, it seems an unconscious expression of the social wish for all women to just disappear. Get off our street. Get back in the kitchen. Get out of here! To me, this size system expresses a similar logic to that of the Burqa. It wants to efface us.
(And, btw, before y’all start to say how it is Muslim women’s choice to wear headscarves, I totally agree, and they shouldn’t be outlawed. But you have to admit, the original patriarchal logic behind covering-up women’s bodies is pretty darn misogynist.)
So, it turns out the big ole’ patriarchy has a finger in every pie. It’s in our offices, in our pants and in our heads. Good thing we’re so clever and get to deconstruct it.
Lastly, I am interested in writing about eating disorders as an (albeit ineffective) expression of female rebellion. What do you guys think? Do you know any feminist takes on anorexia, bulimia and over-eating?
Oh, yeah, and here is a Marxist anthem for y’all. It comes from all that writing about industrialisation:
Coming soon: fascinating subjects such as, how Disney stops me from getting laid, what the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ mean in my writing and workshop-inspired femmepowerment.