Boots, Trump and Northern Ireland…Why are we still having to talk about abortion and contraceptive rights in 2017?

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For many people, 2017 will be remembered as a year when moralistic and reactionary arguments around abortion rights and women’s contraceptive rights were dragged back into the mainstream. Yesterday, Boots decided to wade into the debate around abortion and contraceptive rights by refusing to lower the price of the morning after pill, which costs around £30.

Despite the fact that other chains, like Superdrug, agreed to halve the price after a campaign by Bpas (The British Pregnancy Advisory Service), Boots wrote a letter to Bpas explaining that the “EHC [emergency hormonal contraception] polarises public opinion”  and that they “receive frequent contact from individuals who voice their disapproval of the fact that the company chooses to provide this service”. Boots went on to make the revolting, moralising statement that they “would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product”.

The notion that we stupid women should be punished if we are worried we may fall pregnant after unprotected sex, whether that be because of a split condom, forgetting to take the pill, or a drunk night of unprotected sex, is insulting. What’s more, the suggestion that lowering the price would lead to a stampede of irresponsible women in Boots, post-sex, frothing at the mouth and raring to take the morning after pill “inappropriately”, feeds the suggestion that we are incapable of making contraceptive decisions independently, and that we are all just horny, irresponsible whores looking for a bargain on our mission to murder unborn children. Unfortunately, this Boots saga comes in a year where it seems our reproductive rights are once more up for grabs in many respects.

In 2017, a bill in parliament to decriminalise abortion in England was voted in. Shockingly, the 1967 Abortion Act did not actually do this, but rather made it legal only if two doctors approve the procedure – if you failed to meet these conditions, you would have been committing a criminal offence. Online abortion pills are now widely available and abortion was the only medical procedure governed by such old legislation. As Boots have now been shown to think themselves – why were women still being questioned on their ability to make these choices independently?

In the USA, we have seen the election of the racist, misogynist Donald Trump who, in his first day in the Oval office, signed a federal ban on international groups that give information about or provide abortions. He and his ilk are pro-life and anti-women. Lest we forget that during Trump’s election campaign he suggested that there should be “some kind of punishment” in place for women who have abortions (if it was banned). More recently, there has been a proposed revision of the contraception mandate (which saved women more than $1 billion in birth control costs in 2013) of the Affordable Care Act, which would make it much more difficult for women to get protection. When this is paired with the fact that abstinence is taught in some schools in the USA as a part of sex education (and often instead of education around contraception), Trump’s administration will put women at risk of pregnancy as their ability to have free, safe abortions is being threatened more every day. A Donald Trump appointed judge recently compared abortion to slavery, calling them “the two greatest tragedies in our country”…

Of course in the UK, Northern Ireland has been at the centre of the struggle for free, safe and legal abortion since the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied there. This fact has become more prominent of late due to the Tories’ dodgy deal with the fiercely pro-life DUP.  Abortion is not permitted in Northern Ireland even in cases of rape and incest and in 2016, a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended sentence after she bought drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage as she did not have the money to travel to England for an abortion. It was recently announced that the government would provide free abortions to Northern Irish women in England. Although this is a step in the right direction, women would still have to have the funds to get to England in the first place, after most likely having to take days off work and/or organise child care.

Like women in Northern Ireland and USA, the disturbing common thread is that women who have money are more likely to be able to access safe and legal abortion and contraception services, whilst women who do not, have their right to bodily autonomy taken from them. What’s more, companies like Boots are putting their profits before our reproductive rights whilst condescending to us with their sneering moralism.

The fight is no where near over whilst an estimated 22 million unsafe abortions take place worldwide each year. Women are driven to this when they cannot access safe, legal and free abortions and/or access free contraception due (often) to the sweeping moralism of the state and religious institutions and the contempt with which they view the concept of our right to choose what we do with our bodies.

We must continue to oppose any suggestion to limit our abortion and contraceptive rights in the UK and across the world, and in the case of Northern Ireland, keep fighting for the right to access free and legal abortions. Boots will likely see the effects of openly showing contempt for our contraceptive rights after a boycott has been called. What is horrifying, however, is this reminder that, in the year where millions flooded the streets to join the Women’s Marches, the hard fought victories that were won by reproductive and contraceptive rights campaigners must be held onto with all of our strength to protect them from those that are waiting to pounce and drag us back to much darker times.

I was sexually harassed and touched at work and nothing was done

TW: Sexual assault and harassment

It has been 8 months since I was sexually assaulted and harassed at work and nothing has been done.

I had been sexually assaulted by different men (once at a house party, 3 times in public) four times previously and had never reported it. I had always wanted to play down what had happened and did not want to re-traumatise myself by going through the process of a police investigation for what I knew were ultimately very minor sexual crimes. I did report an incident to the police once when a group of us were flashed on the way home by a drunk man who was out with his friends. I was so fed up and furious that I ran and asked for help and some lovely men tried to stop him leaving in a taxi while I called the police – it took them more than 40 minutes to arrive, by which point I had gone home and the man had escaped. When the police called me to follow up the next day, they said “he did not seem like a predator” and was “just drunk”. This was obviously a minor incident but it is my only personal experience of reporting a sexual crime to a higher power and it did not fill me with a great sense of optimism.

On starting work at a Secondary School in September, I naively thought that I would be safe from work place harassment. In my first week, however, I had already taken note of how creepy one of the PE teachers was. Every time he passed me in the corridor he would wink, and he inappropriately called my line manager “a two faced bitch” in one of the few conversations we had. He would leer at me in meetings, giving me those horrible looks that all women recognise. In short, he seemed like a creepy, sexist older man.

At the Christmas staff quiz he was sitting on my table. I had had a few glasses of wine and was chatting to various members of staff on my table. My memory is hazy due to the alcohol, but I remember him making some kind of comment along the lines of “you have a great figure” and as he said this, he put both his hands onto my thighs. It was over very quickly but it made my skin crawl. I tried to brush it off with nervous laughter and moved to a different seat. I attempted to forget about it, but had this nasty feeling that he was testing the waters to see how I would react, to see how far he could push his behaviour.

After the Christmas holidays I was at a year group briefing early before school in one of the classrooms. I was sitting at the back, the other members of staff were in front of me. He came into the room late and so people were joking about him being lazy – everyone was laughing about it. As the meeting started and the other members of staff were distracted, he walked close behind me, put his hand under my hair on the back of my neck and said confidently (but so nobody else could hear) “very pretty.” He then moved calmly across the room to sit on the other side from me.

I was so astounded that I actually started to say thank you before I fully realised what had happened and felt furiously sick. The meeting was only ten minutes, but it felt torturously long. I was hot with rage and deeply disgusted. He was so much older than me, with a round head, sharky eyes and a terrible haircut – the hair was thinning, grey and crunchy. He always wore shorts which revealed his waxy legs. I was fucking furious he thought he had any right to my body. How dare he leer at me, touch me. It brought back all of those memories of the times men had taken my body as their right, grabbing my vagina as I tried to turn off the smoke alarm at a party, undoing my bikini top on a beach where I was alone, living in a foreign country.

After the meeting finished, I immediately spoke to a woman teacher that I trusted and asked if she had heard him – she had not, but she agreed that I should report what had happened. I felt confident because his behaviour had been so inappropriate leading up to this (second) assault that I was sure they would deal with it – a string of incidents is surely more likely to show how calculated his actions were?

Unfortunately all that followed was a humiliating investigation, led by an older male member of the Senior Leadership Team who, frankly, did not have a fucking clue. They followed procedure, they said, and told me they were carrying out a ‘formal investigation’ – an HR woman from the council came in to oversee the process. I was interviewed multiple times, crying openly in two of the meetings. This was humiliation enough as a young woman new to a job. I also had to drag one of my colleagues with me to the meetings as my support as  I was not in a union yet (I had only been working there for a month and, stupidly, had not got round to joining).

I was sure that there would be some outcome – all I wanted was for him to admit he had harassed and assaulted me. I wanted my work place to see that I had been a victim of age and gender discrimination and to acknowledge that I did not feel safe or comfortable. Instead, after a horrific process over the course of two weeks, they decided there was not enough evidence to support what I had said (despite the fact he had admitted to saying what I told them). They told me that the problem was that they could not prove that the “unwanted sexual touching” had happened.

I was confused because I did not understand what process I had just been through. They had said it was a formal investigation but they then played it down saying it had actually just been informally working out what had happened. I tried to say that I did not care about the formalities and I just wanted to be believed and for him to understand what he had done. They offered for him to write an apology letter which infuriated me – how could he apologise for something he was denying he had done?

What is so infuriating is that they did not have any internal structures in place to deal with structural issues like sexism. I can guarantee that this man never went through any kind of training about gender inequality and discrimination – how is this not a safeguarding issue? The man works with vulnerable children everyday as part of his job, yet the school were entirely incapable of taking seriously his harassment of a new, young colleague and how that could have the potential to be a serious issue for the children in the school.

I tried to explain to the investigating team that, for me, this was not just about the incidents themselves, but about the inherent power imbalance that was at play in everything that had happened. He was able to treat me in the way that he did because I was new, because I was young and because I am a woman. He was a long-standing member of staff who I feel was testing the waters with me from the minute I arrived to see what behaviour he could get away with.

Unfortunately, my experience is not unique and on the scale of sexual crimes, it is very minor – if I had reported this to the police, I would have had no hope whatsoever of getting any kind of justice. A 2016 TUC survey of 1,500 women cited 52% as having stated that they had been sexually harassed at work, and a quarter of those women experienced unwanted touching. This is a systemic issue and it is to the shame of the local authority school where I work that they have absolutely no training in place around these issues for staff.

It is 8 months on from this and it has been totally brushed under the rug. I asked for a meeting with the investigating officer when I received a whole staff email from my harasser wishing all of us “ladies” a happy international women’s day – he had attached a photograph of a man holding a bouquet of flowers… Aside from wanting to gag, I was apoplectic with rage that he had had the audacity to include me in his stupid, sexist email after everything that I had had to go through.

When I complained about this email I explained, yet again, that he very clearly had no understanding of how to behave towards female members of staff and asked whether there would be any training provided so that he could understand the string of terrible things he had done, and be able to put together some kind of formal apology. The investigating officer attempted to appease me by claiming to understand but, since that meeting, absolutely nothing has happened. They claim that no such training course exists.

I flinch every single time I pass my harasser in the corridor. I feel embarrassed and anxious anytime a member of staff from the PE department is near me. I worry that the Senior Leadership Team think I overreacted and lied. In short, it has made my life at work extremely difficult. I was referred for CBT by my GP and in those sessions truly realised how much anxiety work was causing me. Thankfully I am leaving in 4 weeks time, but I must endure those weeks knowing that nothing has been done.

My experience is part of a vast picture of harassment, intimidation and violence against women, LGBTQI+ and non-binary people within the work place. It is no shock to me that work places get away with creating and nurturing these unsafe spaces for us, but it is really important that people are aware of how widespread this kind of behaviour is. I wish I had had the strength to shout out in that meeting for him to get his hands off me, but in the moment, I froze.

We need strengthened unions that stand up for workers and protect us from harassment and bullying and proper training and development for members of the workforce who are sexist – it is disgusting to allow this cycle of sexual assault and harassment to continue.  Thankfully, I am able to leave my workplace and move on to something else – although I suffered, ultimately I have been able to keep living my life. For others, this is not the case. Sexual harassment often causes women to be pushed out of work causing a devastating economic impact on the woman victim. It can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other serious mental  health issues. It has a knock on effect to almost every part of the victim’s day to day life and a huge social impact within the workplace (if the woman has not felt like she has no other option but to leave).

We must continue to fight to kick sexual harassment out of the workplace and remember how many thousands of women are impacted each year.

 

An Open Letter to Theresa May

Artwork by Alice Skinner https://www.instagram.com/whothafuckisalice

Dear Prime Minister,

You are due to meet with Donald Trump at the White House tomorrow. As I’m sure you are aware, you are also due to meet with a man who, whilst talking about women, was recorded saying: ‘when you’re a star you can do anything… grab them by the pussy.’ You are also due to meet with a man who called for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ You are also due to meet with a man who in order to ‘fight fire with fire’ has justified the use of torture, such as waterboarding. You are meeting with A MAN who said that women who seek abortions should be subject to ‘some form of punishment.’

Whilst I, along with the millions of other people who took to the streets all over the world last Saturday for the Women’s Marches, continue to try and reconcile the fact that this man is the President of the United States, I urge you to consider the following:

We could waste our time talking about how the President has so admirably recanted and apologised for the comments mentioned above (never mind how they alone have helped legitimise islamophobia and misogyny), however, I think that employing an ‘actions speak louder than words’ approach may be more enlightening. I’m a great believer in everyone deserves a 522nd chance, so let’s delve into the President’s recent activity and see if these abhorrent comments were merely several slips of the same disgusting tongue.

1) The right to grab pussy.

(Once having been told that this is not actually an amendment on the Constitution) Donald Trump did issue a short statement saying ‘I said it, I was wrong, and I apologise… anyone who knows me, knows these words don’t reflect who I am’. The President’s attempts to dispel fears about his predatory behaviour have been undermined by at least 24 women who have accused the President of inappropriate sexual behaviour in multiple incidents spanning the last 30 years.

I think it is fair to argue, Prime Minister, that here is an example of (multiple) actions speaking louder than words.

2) The man said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. To quote the President can we please figure out ‘what the hell is going on?’

Well, as you know, Prime Minister, the President is planning to sign an executive order that would indefinitely block Syrian refugees from entering the US, as well as suspending any immigration for at least 30 days from a number of predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Once again, despite the fact that Trump did later modify his planned Muslim ban to a slightly less inflammatory ‘extreme vetting’ of immigrants from certain countries, his racist intentions have been made clear only a week into his presidency.

3) Let’s take a minute to look at the moment Donald Trump was allowed to sign an anti-abortion executive order surrounded by men: image1

Never, as long as I live, will I see a photo of 6 women signing legislation which determines what men can do with their own reproductive organs. In this photo, the President is signing an executive order that prohibits international NGOs from funding abortion services and providing information about abortions if they receive US funding. As the United States is the single largest donor to global health efforts, this order will affect thousands of international healthcare services who will have to decide between critical funding and whether to continue to offer family planning care. The possible decrease in access to abortions will inevitably lead to an increase in unsafe abortions, which kill tens of thousands of women every year.

Prime Minister, at this point I need to quote you. On the Andrew Marr show you said ‘whenever there is something that I find unacceptable, I won’t be afraid to say it to Donald Trump’.

Please, Theresa, if you honestly can’t find anything in the points above that you personally find ‘unacceptable’, I urge you PLEASE to listen to and stand up for the millions of people who marched last Saturday who have shown that they do.

You being there as a female Prime Minister is simply not a big enough statement. Being a woman in power is not the same as standing up for women’s rights. Your faux feminism is no good to the millions of women facing systemic sexist injustices. Your party’s silence when it comes to women’s issues is deafening and your decision to prioritise finding common ground with a racist misogynist will only prove how shallow your feminist principles are. 

In the words of Desmond Tutu, if you are neutral (or in this case silent) in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. 

STAND UP TO TRUMP.

Yours (hopefully) in solidarity,

Lily West

The Burqini Ban exposes the hypocrisy of the “Secular” French State

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Photograph: Franck Pennant/AFP/Getty (The Guardian Online)

Sara Khan

This month – while the Scottish have officially allowed the hijab to be worn as part of police uniform – French politicians have given us a clear demonstration of what constitutes liberté, égalité, fraternité. In a nutshell, women are liberated only when armed white men patrol their beaches, dictating what they should and should not wear. Of course, it’s only oppression when brown men are doing it.

Never mind that an estimated 40% of burqini wearers are non-Muslim (see Nigella Lawson, who wears one in order to protect her skin). Never mind that white French women are allowed to wear full body wetsuits and swim caps – you know, covering exactly the same parts of their body as a burqini, save maybe a bit of neck – without being forced to strip. The important thing here is the word: burqini. Bring an Arabic word into it and suddenly it’s evil. By definition, the term burqa simply denotes a loose garment covering the body from head to foot; it is not mentioned in the Qu’ran even once. In several countries, such as Saudi Arabia, women are forced to wear these, and that is wrong – whether or not a woman wears a burqa should be her choice, her decision to express her modesty and her faith in a certain way – but it is equally wrong to prohibit them from doing so. Women can only reclaim their bodies when they are able to choose how to do it. Remember, while burqinis provoke terrorism, short skirts and tight dresses provoke rape. Either way, women’s clothing is inevitably the reason for appalling and immoral actions committed by men; it’s not like men have agency over themselves or should be held responsible for their own actions.

The French public have shown overwhelming support for the outright racism and sexism of these politicians. Mathilde Cousin, a witness to the incident at Nice, said that “the saddest thing was that people were shouting ‘go home’, and some were applauding the police.” According to an Ifop survey, 64% of French people are in favour of the burqini bans, while another 30% are indifferent. That’s 94% of French people suffering from either active or internalised racism, Islamophobia and sexism. And it is extremely important to note that this figure includes women. That’s an overwhelming number of white “feminists” supporting the bans (because the liberation of women only counts when in accordance with Western ideals).

French politicians keep saying that the burqini opposes secular French values. Since when did secularism translate into “the authoritarian imposition of atheism”? If secularism is about the separation of the state from the influence of religious organisations – which it is – then it does not entail the suppression of religious expression. Secularism is about taking an unbiased standpoint; it’s about protecting people from being imposed upon. When practiced correctly, it should entail the elimination of discrimination on the basis of religion, and it should protect the rights of religious minorities. Looks like it’s actually the French authorities whose actions are flying in the face of secular values.

Aheda Zanetti, who designed the burqini, recounts how when she was growing up, her hijab made it difficult to participate in sport. She remembers being afraid to go outside and to socialise because of rampant Islamophobic attitudes in the English-speaking world. She created the burqini – along with other sportswear for Muslim women – to give them the freedom to engage in a range of activities, to integrate and to be accepted. In denying the burqini, the French have shown that they are not interested in the rights of Muslim women, or of any women, really. The burqini ban defines Frenchness by whiteness, and it defines womanhood by sexuality. Consumer culture relentlessly commodifies women’s bodies, and women who choose to cover themselves are perhaps the most threatening of all, as they radically refuse to be defined by patriarchal, capitalist trajectories.

Unfortunately, these bans are only one manifestation of a terrifying trend. In France, Marie Le Pen and her racist Front National continues to rise, while in the lead up to next year’s election, Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that as president he would extend the ban on the hijab to universities, restrict access to benefits for women who repeatedly violate the burqa ban, and scrap laws authorising immigrants to be reunited with their families. Elsewhere, Donald Trump rallies vast numbers of white Americans against the immigrant population, and Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have successfully lead us towards Brexit, resulting in exponential rises in xenophobic abuse. Racism and fascism are spreading, and they are spreading fast.

The world that many French, American and British politicians would have us live in is steeped in hatred, bigotry and fear. In particular, the claim that the burqini bans have been made in the name of counter-terrorism is completely farcical. The Nice ban specifically references the Bastille Day attack last month, but completely fails to mention that 84 of its victims were Muslim; the mayor of Cannes has said that burqinis refer to an allegiance to terrorist groups (because Islamist organisations are known for encouraging women to bathe in form-fitting swimwear on mixed gender public beaches). By pitting us against each other, the people that spread these lies hope to divide and conquer.

As ever, it is wonderful to see that the French authorities have their priorities in order. Instead of focusing on resolving the socioeconomic issues that affect migrants and that may predispose them to harbour negative feelings towards the state, they choose to aggravate the situation by alienating them further and making them more vulnerable to recruitment by extremists. Today, the French High Court suspended the burqini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Loubet, and this does bode well; the ban may soon be suspended in other towns across the country. State-sanctioned Islamophobia, racism and sexism are still alive and well in France, however, and we have not heard the last of Sarkozy, Le Pen, or Manuel Valls. When Islamist organisations next strike, remember to blame the government.

Sara Khan

 

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 m.holliss@hotmail.com.