I graduated the other week. After two years of part-time study, alongside two part-time jobs, a house move, an employment change and being rostered onto two roller derby travel teams, I achieved my M.Litt – with distinction – in Gender Studies. I should have been ready to mark this occasion, looking forward to celebrating my achievement. But mostly, I spent the run up to the ceremony worrying about what to wear.
Of course, I knew it couldn’t have mattered less. First of all, I know – I mean, I really know – that it doesn’t matter what you look like. Secondly, I knew that I would be wearing a robe over whatever I decided on anyway. But still. Plus, I rarely spend too much time on my appearance; I frequently forget to look in the mirror before I leave the house, don’t generally wear make-up, wear one of two pairs of supermarket jeans that cost £14 until they wear out then buy some more. But still. Also, I just got a degree in GENDER STUDIES. I play ROLLER DERBY. If anything is going to teach you to care more about what you can achieve with your brain and your body that with what you look like to other people, then they should do it.
BUT STILL. I cared. I wanted to look nice. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it was how I was thinking about this that bothered me. I tried on some dresses in a couple of shops, and instantly felt upset, and angry at myself. I could see all that extra weight I’m carrying these days, I could see the bags under my eyes and my grey hair and the broken veins under my hairy skin. Dresses, that looked big on the hanger, barely stretched over my hips, and this made me feel bad. The changing room lights showed up all my imperfections. A cloud sat over me and it wouldn’t clear.
I wanted to look nice: this meant that I wanted to look thin, and young, and pretty. When I was 12, all I wanted was to be pretty and popular (to me, they went hand in hand). I’m now 43, and generally like to think I’m above such things, but no – I was worrying about pretty much the same thing.
Where does this come from? Early on in my M.Litt, I was introduced to Iris Marion Young, and specifically, her essay Throwing Like A Girl. It struck a chord with me, and is one of a few bits of reading that have really stayed with me (my memory is full of 80s pop culture titbits with little room for much more). Girls, assigned female at birth and identified as female as children, are objectified from such a young age, that it affects their behaviours and abilities. So, if there is such a thing as throwing like a girl, and if that thing is weaker or in some way lesser than how a male child would throw, then it is because she knows she is being watched, judged, objectified and this knowledge- this self-consciousness – affects how she throws, and how she talks, walks, studies, treats other girls. These are my words, of course. Young is somewhat more articulate, naming the “tension between transcendence and immanence, between subjectivity and being a mere object.” (144)
She also says:
“…patriarchal society defines woman as object, as a mere body, and … in sexist society women are in fact frequently regarded by others as objects and mere bodies. An essential part of the situation of being a woman is that of living the ever-present possibility that one will be gazed upon as a mere body, as shape and flesh that presents itself as the potential object of another subject’s intentions and manipulations, rather than as a living manifestation of action and intention. The source of this objectified bodily existence is in the attitude of others regarding her, but the woman herself often actively takes up her body as a mere thing. She gazes at it in the mirror, worries about how it looks to others, prunes it, shapes it, molds and decorates it.
This objectified bodily existence accounts for the self-consciousness of the feminine relation to her body and resulting distance she takes from her body.” (155)
And this is what spoke to me. And this is what came to mind when I stood in that changing room, gazing in the mirror and worrying about what I would look like to others. This came back to me when I spent all those hours shaping, moulding and decorating.
I really, really want to be a living manifestation of action and intention, and to not live that ever present possibility of being gazed upon, of being judged, of being objectified – not just by others, but by myself too. I don’t want to be at a distance from my body.
I am strong, I am intelligent. My two extra dress sizes and my grey hair and my wobbly thighs and my fucking BEARD are at once part of my strength and intelligence, and they are also not me.
I am action and intention. And right now I intend to drink some gin, and watch some Gilmore Girls. And, by the way, I looked magnificent, and had me some fine arm candy to boot.