Madness in the method: the myth of female privilege

Rupen Kalsi

Anybody making a case for the relevance of feminism today will have to tackle the familiar objection about reverse sexism as equivalent.

Despite a lack of awareness about the role of feminism in dispelling gender stereotyping for both males and females i.e. ‘manning up’ or ‘throwing like a girl’ and in working to advance LGBT rights, it isn’t realised that most sexism is internalised and institutionalised.

The message of women as inferior is so embedded in our psyches that it affects our perception of others and the language we use. Linguistic sexism is encapsulated by generic masculine pronouns, used when the gender of the person referred to is unknown. The presumption of the unknown as male shows that male is the perceived norm whilst the feminine is the ‘other’. And it is the norm in society that dictates policy, public opinion and acceptable action leading to greater superiority in reality. Pronouns aren’t the only part of language where ‘male as the norm’ is demonstrated, it can be seen in feminised suffixes in nouns for professions – with actor being the norm and the word actress having to be a modification on the archetype.

With this in mind, sexism itself should be seen, not as something localised to certain issues, but as pervasive, stretching from our minds, to language and to our actions.

Let’s visualise society as a tree and sexism as a disease in its veins spreading down to its roots. The branches are instances of that disease like the pay gap, rape culture and the objectification of the female form. A tree surgeon comes in and treats the disease by trimming off the most affected branches. Whilst this is effective to some extent, what truly needs to be tackled is the diseased roots.

We can see this in real-life with the campaign No More Page 3 which, though it inspired many young feminists, culminated in lingerie-clad women replacing the bare tits of yesteryear. Despite this, as Laura Bates says, the message “the news about women was their breasts” hasn’t been removed but has been tempered and put in lacy briefs. To ignore the symbolism of this success would be callous and not giving the campaigners their rightful due, but not pointing out the limited consequences of this victory would be to neglect the cluster of unhealthy attitudes about women’s bodies that promulgate and reinforce Page 3 as ‘simply a bit of good old-fashioned fun’.

Has the victory of No More Page 3 been symbolic and important? Yes. Has it tackled the problem, root-and-all? No. What remains is an habitual and normalised objectification of women in the media shown by the Protein World ‘are you beach body ready’ ad springing up again in New York. What’s more, as many feminists have pointed out, what is on The Sun’s page 3 (along with much more explicit material) is available out there online and free for anybody to access anyway. The branch was cut, but the root of the issue still remains.

The roots of our society are ‘diseased’ because of a collection of beliefs about women as physically and mentally inferior upon which our society was built – the main premise being ‘men are superior in x way to women’. It is for this reason that ‘reverse sexism’ can’t possibly be classed as equivalent or even as comparable to what occurs to self-identifying women.

Instances of prejudice against men, and that’s what I believe it should be called, cannot recreate or imitate generations of beliefs built around the tenet that women are inferior nor can it replicate the implicit power structures that formed around this belief holding women back where men aren’t. Though these power structures are often enveloped in linguistic and behavioural subtleties and not so subtle harassment of women in day-to-day life, the statistics show the disease in practice with only 7 FTSE 100 companies with a female CEO – fewer than the 17 CEOs with the name John.

Reverse sexism or female privilege cannot be equated to traditional sexism because to do that would be to compare the defective branches of a non-diseased tree to our disease ravaged tree above. Singular instances of something cannot be fairly compared to a structural and all-pervasive problem.

To get rid of the true disease in our society we must recognise the challenges all self-identifying women face and correct the toxic beliefs at the root of society from which sexism has grown and flourished. It is only when we realise the madness in the method by which we think and act about women that we can fight the true disease in sexism.

Rupen Kalsi





Pride Ungroomed

©Maya Holliss






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Aged twelve I shaved my legs for the first time, locked in my family bathroom. I scraped the ‘unsightly’ and ‘unwelcome’ hair from my legs using my dad’s blunt razor. My inexperienced younger self did this with no water or shaving gel – the result was disastrous. The red cuts and angry rash left me looking quite unlike the ‘goddess’ that Venus adverts had promised, but resembled more of someone suffering from a nasty skin condition. This was the first of many shaving, waxing, plucking, epilating catastrophes throughout my teens that left me broke, itching, with ingrown hairs, uncomfortable and in pain. 10 years later and I am just beginning to come to terms with why I felt compelled to wage war with the hair on my body.

My choice to shave had nothing to do with my upbringing; my mother – an ardent feminist – was horrified when she found out. What I am aware of now is that I actually didn’t have a choice. As my body dealt with the painstakingly confusing transformation into adulthood, it became obvious society had picked and chosen what parts of a woman’s body were ‘allowed’ and ‘sexy’ and what was ‘disgusting’ and had to be modified. Body hair undeniably fell into the latter. Growing up, the focus and scrutiny of the appearance of the female body, its sex appeal and attractiveness just didn’t exist in the same way for the opposite gender.

The pressure from commercial shaving companies holds a large responsibility for the cultural rejection of female body hair. Mainstream media, music and the film industry have also contributed to our disillusioned view of women’s bodies. Imagine Beyoncé was an advocate of tufts of armpit hair and fuzzy legs. If this were the norm and being celebrated, would we think being clean-shaven was disgusting? The porn industry is another well-known culprit, often depicting women’s bodies and genitals appearing hairless and child-like. It seems body hair has been monopolised as a typically male attribute, and cultivated as a symbol of masculinity (although this is also coming under scrutiny in some worlds of male grooming).

Unshaven women threaten and challenge the authority and power behind gender stereotypes. This narrative fits into our patriarchal model, keeping women as the weaker more vulnerable gender, by looking like children (apart from where breasts are concerned). This consolidates the false idea that women need ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’ men to protect and look after them. Some women would argue feeling less feminine at the prospect of growing their body hair. But what could be more feminine than the natural processes of the female body? It is purely the way we have been conditioned to feel about that hair that makes it seem masculine. Naturally, it is normal to want to have control over our bodies, choosing to shave (and do anything else to our bodies) is a completely valid choice to make. What isn’t right, is the generations of women believing a perfectly normal part of their body is inherently disgusting.

Entering my twenties I became more familiar with women who had chosen not to shave, I respected their decision but still maintained it was easier and less hassle to remove my hair (that had never really been allowed to grow) than to take a stance and become one of those ‘hairy women’. I also began to identify some political and sociological values with unshaven women. These women were almost always middle-class, feminist, politically-engaged, left-wing and often labelled as ‘hippies’. My own friendships formed from a wide variety of classes, backgrounds and political views, it felt such a shame that I would have to belong to a certain social tribe to make my own decisions about my body. It has increasingly become obvious the decision to shave at the age of twelve, and continue removing my body hair as I entered womanhood was made, not of my own accord, but for me by society, sexual expectations, the media and often, surprisingly, from other women.

‘Pride Ungroomed’ began as an idea to portray beautiful women who don’t shave their armpits. But throughout the project it became apparent that I was falling into the same trap that I was trying to question, with the view that portraying a woman’s beauty with her unshaven body made it somehow more acceptable. The project has evolved to become more about removing the taboo from the subject and hopefully creating a space to start a well-needed conversation. The response from male and female friends alike was surprisingly open and positive. It seems the view that women should shave is more part of a group mentality rather than any individual view. Like so many other things in society we all choose the easiest, most trodden path.

Whether you choose to shave or not, that’s not really the point, what’s more important is that we are aware that we have a choice, that our decisions about our bodies are coming from within and we strive towards a society that supports us either way.

©Maya Holliss

This is an ongoing project if you want to find out more or get involved email