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Impossible objects


You've let yourself go, you're a 3, you're a 9 but you're vain, you're too thin, you're too fat, you're too much at the gym, you have body hair, pores, too much make-up, you're dressed like a frump, like a tramp, you're a prude, you're a prick-tease, a turn-off, a slut, you're too girly, too butch, you're not smiling, you're endlessly styling your hair, it's too frizzy, too flat, you spend too much on products, you're visibly ageing, you must have had work done, you've lapsed in your duty of care, you're no more than a housewife, you're too career-driven, you've got no ambition, you're talking too much and too loudly, you've nothing to say, you're a bimbo, too smart, too assertive, a doormat, behaving too much like a man, you're a typical woman.

In short, there are no "fine lines" here: achieving acceptable womanhood isn't a balancing act, it's impossible. Logically impossible. The criteria aren't merely unrealistically exacting; they're internally inconsistent.

And yet, we continue to enforce them. And when I say 'we', I don't just mean patriarchal society in the abstract, nor 'unenlightened' men exploiting their privilege to pressurise and obligate women. No; by now – as I wrote a bit about before – women have so internalised centuries of negative messages and treatment, and arbitrary norms, that devaluing, restricting and policing ourselves and one another has become second nature. It doesn't occur to us to question society's prescriptions for our bodies and our behaviours; they seem, well, what it is to be normal.

Perhaps we are more open to recognise oppressive self-policing when it comes in forms we've not been personally inculcated to. Alice Walker, in By the Light of My Father's Smile, highlights the very visual – and unusual from a Western perspective – example of decorative bodily mutilation in some African tribes. Through the character of Langley she questions whether the willing adoption of lip plates and neck rings by the women themselves really makes those adornments less burdensome and harmful:
While I was there I stayed with missionaries who deplored everything about the tribe. Except these practices. They thought that since the women were the enforcers they had originally dreamed them up and were not oppressed by them. Besides, they said it was these symbols of tribal culture – the disks, the iron collar – that made the tribe unique. I said, But the lips and the necks of the women are raw and infected. And because the collars can never be taken off, their necks are never washed. (Alice Walker, By the Light of My Father's Smile, 1999).
In the wonderful Pitt Rivers Museum we saw a display which juxtaposed such mechanisms from around the world with others more familiar to most of its visitors: breast implants, high heels, corsets, and all manner of procedures for body hair removal (high up there among my most resented pastimes). The ideals for womanhood aren't universal, but the obligation to attain them sure seems to be.

Some of our mutual reinforcement takes the form of cruel and explicit criticism – slut shaming, body shaming, fashion shaming ... strong and expressed opinions about one another's capabilities as mothers, partnersprofessionals, friends. But lots of it is quieter, politer, more inadvertent than that. Women who don't make a practice of doing other people down still often manage to do themselves down in ways which, as well as bolstering their own negative self-image, tend to emphasize the conflicting criteria in the ears of their female listeners. Statements like "I *never* leave the house without my make-up on" or "I wouldn't dream of going to the gym without shaving my legs" resonate with an implicit "and nor should you". And there are few things more pointedly, boringly crushing than the words "I feel so fat/ugly!" on the lips of an evidently thinner/more attractive friend.

And then there's small talk. I shudder when I catch myself defaulting to niceties like "you look nice", or "hey, have you lost weight?", which a) make for depressingly unimaginative conversation, and b) contribute to the over-emphasis on narrow and demanding aspirations. Likewise, "so, what do you do?" might be an easy go-to ice-breaker but it favours a paradigm in which people are defined and judged by their occupation, as well as inadvertently demanding an account for the way a woman spends her time.

Ironically, and frustratingly, I'm discovering that being a feminist woman can be even harder than being a, err, y'know, general-type woman. There's so many (often contradictory) ways of getting it wrong, and I'm so good at finding them. And other feminists are so good at making me feel it! And worse, I catch myself beginning to police the feminist credentials of others. I don't know whether to be reassured or dismayed to find, on doing a spot of research, that it's not (as I anxiously assumed) 'just me':
...we are busy gawping at the new online sidebar of shame in which any woman who says anything in public will be done over for flaunting the wrong kind of feminism. All of this is designed to make women stop talking, stop identifying with what we have in common and make us retreat into the narcissism of small differences. (Suzanne Moore, Stop Telling Women They're Doing Feminism Wrong, Guardian, May 2016).
Whilst the internet has certainly helped fuel feminist infighting (and, to be fair, feminist mobilisation) these problems are apparently far from new to the movement. "Online feminism faces many of the same challenges our foremothers faced: not enough support, too much attention for the dominant groups, vicious internal attacks, and bitter frustration and disillusionment." (Jill Filipovic, The Tragic Irony Of Feminists Trashing Each OtherGuardian, May 2013). An influential 1976 essay by feminist writer Joreen exposed the 'trashing' then going on in the activist community, where women were systematically excluded or edged out for being too successful or for otherwise not conforming to standards which, after all, were not so very different to the societal values feminism was supposed to be challenging. 
Women who remind us that we are not all the same are trashed because their differentness is interpreted as meaning we are not all equal. [...] Why has consciousness-raising not raised our consciousness about trashing? [...] There is nothing new about discouraging women from stepping out of place by the use of psychological manipulation. This is one of the things that have kept women down for years; it is one thing that feminism was supposed to liberate us from. Yet, instead of an alternative culture with alternative values, we have created alternative means of enforcing the traditional culture and values. (Joreen, Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood, Ms. magazine, April 1976) 
Joreen suggests that the trend was a symptom of collective rage seeking an outlet ... and finding it in associate activists, on whom the visible impact was at least immediate, albeit non-constructive. It makes a sad sort of sense. There is, after all, a lot to be angry about. It's hard to unsee it, especially when it's all over your news feed. And one usually feels powerless. For example, I can't do much (not even vote) to stop a racist, misogynist, ablist, sexually predatory, anti-intellectual, compulsively dishonest demagogue from becoming the president of the US. But I can easily humble a fellow would-be feminist by gleefully pointing out (e.g.) a lapse in her awareness of her privilege.

And then, among the most impossible of all ideals, there is the Christian woman. Wife, mother, homemaker, cake-baker, Sunday school teacher, supplier of quiches ... beautiful but unadorned, pure but sexually available to her husband, wise but silent ... Some people understand the Bible as giving clearly-defined prescriptions for womanhood and will gladly reel you off a list of duties and constraints with chapter-and-verse support. But even among those with different (or, more usually, less considered) readings of scripture a similar set of particulars has been somehow absorbed into our collective consciousness and you don't half stand out if you're not great with kids, or you've never made quiche, or you'd prefer the beer and footie that the men's group get to the tea parties arranged for the 'ladies'.

I of all women might very well despair at the addition of a spiritual dimension to the criteria for acceptability. But there's an episode in the biographies of Jesus which renews my hope:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Martha's reproach of her sister seems like classic woman-on-woman policing. "We have a hospitality situation here; it is our female duty to attend, and there she is sitting with the men letting me do all the work!" She even appeals to the authority of a man to lend her accusation weight. But Jesus does not seem to be concerned about Mary's conformity or otherwise to cultural norms. Far from validating Martha's complaint, he instead legitimises Mary's disregard of social expectation in preference for her disciple relationship with him [1]. But that's not to say that he's indifferent to Martha's plight – burdened, or so she feels, by double the responsibility. He wants her to see that the freedom her sister's embracing is for her as well. Martha's generous practical service isn't a bad thing – Jesus appears to have been the grateful recipient of it on several occasions before and since – but it isn't 'necessary'; it isn't why he comes to visit her – his friend, whom he loves (John 11:5); it's not the source of her identity or worth, in his eyes or by any true reckoning. And, I dunno, I like to think he would far rather have gone without (cf. Luke 4:1-2!) or made do (cf. Luke 9:10-17!) if it meant that Martha would only just come and sit down so that they could make the most of the time together.

The thing that strikes me about that "one necessary thing" is it seems to be the same one thing for the women in Jesus' life as for the men. The opportunity to know him supersedes Martha and Mary's traditional domestic roles just as it trumps James and John's duties to the family fishing business, for example (Matthew 4:19-22), and Levi's lucrative position as tax collector (Mark 2:13-14). Later, Paul concludes an impressive résumé of his worldly and spiritual credentials with the emphatic claim "whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." (Philippians 3:7-8a)

In recent months it has been my delight to begin to grow in fellowship with a handful of women substantially different to me who share that 'same one thing'. I am discovering that, with 'unity in Christ' as the basis for friendship, diversity becomes a matter for celebration rather than judgement ... and, actually, a fantastic opportunity for learning from one another – a few of those 'Martha skills' which feel oppressive and constraining when prescribed are really rather contagiously inspiring when gently exampled. Who knows? maybe there's a dinner party host in me just waiting to be liberated. Or maybe there isn't. Either way, here's to the liberation of beans on toast, of mutual acceptance, and of following Jesus.




[1] Re. sitting at Jesus' feet: "This was the ancient posture of disciples or learners. They sat at the "feet" of their teachers - that is, beneath them, in a humble place. Hence, Paul is represented as having been brought up at the "feet" of Gamaliel, Acts 22:3. When it is said that Mary sat at Jesus' feet, it means that she was "a disciple" of his; that she listened attentively to his instructions, and was anxious to learn his doctrine." Barnes' notes on the Bible (quoted from BibleHub.com).


[Thumbnail image cc. by Németh László (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons].

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