When the personal contradicts the political
- Published: 12 March 2011
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On an intellectual level, feminists and other activists may champion diversity and critique oppression and marginalisation with passion and conviction. But what do we do when our personal desires and what we find attractive fall outside our politically correct beliefs? Katrina Fox struggles with the contradictions.
13 March 2011
In 1989 I got a phone call from a woman belonging to a group called Campaign Against Pornography (CAP) asking me if I would like to join her and other feminists in super-glueing the locks to some of the sex shops in London’s red-light area, Soho. I’d put my phone number on a list to join CAP that was passed around at a consciousness-raising meeting in Hackney because everyone else did and I assumed that these women, all of whom were older than me, knew better than a 23-year-old new to the concept of women’s liberation.
I dutifully took down the details of the meeting point for this proposed action, even though I knew in an instant I had no intention of going. My first thought after I put the phone down was, ‘I hope they’re not going to super-glue the locks to Janus’. Janus Bookshop on Old Compton Street specialises in books, videos and magazines in the field of “erotic and recreational discipline” – in other words, spanking porn. And I was a regular customer.
There, I’ve said it. At the same time as I was getting my head around cultural misogyny and the oppression of women by a patriarchal system and aspiring to the identity of lesbian feminist, I was simultaneously sneaking into a sex shop to purchase literature and films in which older men dominated and disciplined young, conventionally attractive women. Along with my refusal to give up wearing red lipstick and high heels to my favourite lesbian nightclub the Ace of Clubs, and being turned on by rape scenes in movies such as The Accused, this furtive activity surely confirmed any suspicions that I was not a “proper” feminist.
The reason for this public confession is to kickstart a discussion which began – as so many good ones do nowadays – on a friend’s Facebook thread about how we reconcile (if indeed we can) the schism between our personal desires and our politics.
The thread began when trans and intersex multimedia artist, writer and photographer Del LaGrace Volcano posted an Observer article in which some medical professionals claimed that internet porn is a contributory factor in the increase in the numbers of women seeking labiaplasty surgery (aka ‘designer vaginas’).
Discussions ensued with points of view ranging from those who believed porn was only one area which contributed to the establishment of social norms, along with fashion and media, and that it was unfair to single it out as the sole cause, to those – including Volcano – who argued that it’s important to question all forms of non-life-threatening surgeries, especially those that are hetero-normalising or about conforming to sexist forms of dominant representation.
This notion of conforming got me thinking, because I had a nose job in the early ’90s. I had no issues with my nose until then, when a couple of friends said it was a bit of a beak with a small bump in it and I should get it ‘fixed’. I have no regrets but I nevertheless find it problematic that I was so willing to go under the knife rather than embrace the nose I was born with. Once again I felt like a “bad” feminist.
And while I abhor the fact that an extremely rigid model – white, thin/slim, conventionally feminine – is held up as the gold standard of attractiveness for women, it’s nevertheless what I aspire to, not only in terms of my own physicality (I can’t rule out the possibility of succumbing to a bit of ‘work’ as I get older) but also in regards to what – or who – I find attractive.
Much as I passionately believe in and wish and campaign for a broad range of body types and sizes, skin colour, ableness and gender expression to be deemed culturally beautiful or sexy, the kinds of women I’m attracted to are invariably slim, white and able-bodied. And while I tend to go for older women, it’s generally those who have nipped, tucked or otherwise made invisible any wrinkles, in addition to dying the white or gray out of their hair and whose faces are ‘enhanced’ by a liberal amount of make-up.
I am disconcerted at the thought of putting on weight and my worst fear is to become so disabled that I’m unable to commit suicide should I wish to end it all.
Many of my queer, feminist and activist friends may argue that makes me a racist, ableist, fatphobic, hypocritical, shallow excuse for a human being. And the awful thing is that they may be right.
But is it possible to change who or what you find attractive, or do these things become hard-wired in our brains at an early age, regardless of how our politics may evolve over time?
Del LaGrace Volcano believes so.
“To be valued as a human being seems to be linked to one's attractiveness quotient and no amount of feminism can make this dynamic disappear once it has become hardwired,” s/he says. “I tend to agree too that one’s notions of what is attractive are also hardwired. I also know some people who don’t have the same narrow parameters as I do when it comes to sexual attraction though. I can see and experience many kinds of beauty, and occasionally surprise myself by who and what I am sexually attracted towards.”
British author and occasional Guardian columnist Roz Kaveney argues that while some hard-wiring is inevitable and difficult to change, it is possible to liberalise it.
“My guess has always been that what is hard-wired is a mixture of sexual selection stuff (displays of health), socially mandated stuff which is less hard-wired (people pursue success of various kinds, but yet there are always people who do not want to sleep with millionaires and successful hunters) and culturally mandated stuff (what is considered normal weight, amount of paint, brightness of teeth varies massively),” she says.
“The answer is, I think, to try to break down the stereotyping that makes only one sort of BMI, teeth, regular features attractive in all three categories and create wiggle room. This is one of the functions of art – the more, say, heavy people with confidence are seen to be attractive to a greater or lesser extent, the more confident fat people there will be to be attractive. I don't think we can get rid of stuff that is to some degree hard-wired – what we can do is work with it and liberalise it.”
It’s a noble goal that Kaveney suggests, but faced with the constant onslaught from the multi-billion-dollar media, marketing, advertising, fashion and porn industries which are hell bent on selling women the message that we are only beautiful, sexy and worthy of acceptance if we fit – or force ourselves – into one particular mould, it’s hard to see how we can reverse such large-scale, systemic sexist, racist, fatphobic, ableist propaganda, especially when many of us, despite being enlightened on an intellectual level, have, to some extent – and much to our chagrin – bought into it.
Got any ideas?
Katrina Fox is editor-in-chief of The Scavenger.