Feminist & artist. Writing & visuals.

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non-binary: a prerequisite for female personhood?

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"Render me more equal" says Milton's Eve, before coming out as non-binary.

Years ago, feminists would argue fervently that women were multifaceted, complex and capable. Qualities previously reserved for men only, is was crucial to women's liberation from the stifling gender role in which they were thought to be so intrinsically bound that the emphasis was placed on their ability, as women, to be able to openly exist as such. It is something most of us would take for granted now - after all, we can be journalists, CEOs or even presidential candidates. Society, we are told, has rid itself of sex-based limitations, instead, oppression manifests in our denial of gender plurality, and individuals' right to overcome the hurdles preventing the expression of their 'authentic self'. The ever growing popularity of 'non-binary', however, raises serious questions about how limitless sexed bodies really are, what it means to inhabit them, and how to escape this.

Recently, the Guardian published figures that reveal gender identity clinics to be under strain, one clinic having had a 100% increase in referrals in the last year. Within this, there is a gender imbalance, with female referrals outnumbering males at 913 to 485, despite only 10-30% of trans men going on to have bottom surgery compared to 60% of trans women. I cannot help but feel the disparity between these figures indicates a different dynamic involved in the experience of gender dysphoria and being female, one that points towards a discomfort first and foremost with an external eye, a social catalyst for the unbearable feeling of a body/mind mismatch. Surgery, it is worth noting, is not even a necessary step to qualify as trans, which brings me to non-binary and the issues it presents. 

For both trans men and non-binary people, womanhood is a burden that cannot be reconciled with. This being said, for trans men, body dysphoria - whether you agree medical transition is the best treatment or not - is arguably more deserving of our sympathy than the pronoun requests of gender agnostics. For a non-binary person, their identity is largely referential, an act of conversational manipulation rather than any overwhelming desire for social camouflage. This is not to create a hierarchy of legitimate trans identities, but to look at the way in which non-binary claims inadvertently illuminate the very problem itself: there is an extension of "I don't want to be a woman" to "I don't want to be a man", to which they conclude, "I want to be a person". This a step backwards from the goals of second wave feminists, who sought to establish women as people. Gender, it was recognised, prevents this from coming into fruition by way of denying the multiplicity of experiences capable for each biological sex - the axis of women's oppression. For non-binary females, the desire for personhood via rejecting womanhood, undermines the feminist goal of female liberation, as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper summarises: "the solution is not to try to slip through the bars of the cage while leaving the rest of the cage intact".

"I want to be treated as a person" is not gender critical paraphrasing, but their words. Jack Monroe, recently stated this in a Guardian interview. Back in April, student Maria Munir teared up declaring the same to Obama. The no-questions asked approach to an individual's presently desired gender identity dismisses (quite conveniently) the role society plays in shaping these outcomes. These influencing factors are not difficult to spot - Munir acknowledges the "cultural implications" of being female from a muslim background and Monroe goes into great detail about the personal context that has shaped her identity:

"School was “very hard”, she says, and as a troubled and unhappy teenager, she developed anorexia, which kept her body in a prepubescent state. It was when she started getting better and put on weight that “I got these massive tits out of nowhere: 38E, which is quite a burden if you don’t really want them”."

This is a familiar experience for many women and girls, and I can only recommend reading Glosswitch's insight on the seeming inevitability of body hatred. For Munir, the subordination of women in Islam (though not exclusive to Islam) is no doubt enough to put anyone off wanting to exist as a female within that. Trans, disordered eating, objectification, religion - our options are limited.

Where women are being failed is that they are being held to account for the impositions of their oppressors, and non-binary is along the lines of victim blaming in this respect, proposing a don't like it? Don't do it way of fixing issues that in reality exist beyond our control. It is not women's obligation to rectify themselves in accordance with patriarchy, or to ditch 'woman' if they'd rather not. We need to have a discussion in which dissatisfaction with the implications of inhabiting a visibly sexed body is not seen a testament to the wrongness of that body, but a call for social scrutiny and ultimately change. Susan Cox writes in Feminist Current "a woman coming out as “non-binary” is a non-statement that declares nothing but common loathing of the female class." Not only do those who lay claim to having transcended the female class leave behind the 'cisgendered' majority to deal with its implications, but it suggests tacit agreement with it on our behalf. "Woman" is not a dirty word, it is not an identity to opt in and out of - it is simply the adult incarnation of the coincidence of XX chromosomes. Being female in patriarchy hurts, but it will never get better if we leave "woman" behind. We must make no compromises in our demand for personhood.

You can't 'regrexit' if you were in a coma at the time, grandma reveals

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At the time of writing, it has been 18 days, 14 hours, 30 minutes since we, Great Britannia, voted to leave the European Union. Now, you might be thinking that phrasing is awfully time specific, but you must understand that it is coincidentally the amount of time my dear grandmother has spent unconscious in a coma. Awash with relief that Nana is with us once more - she's scared us many a time with falls and bumps, and this time it hadn't looked hopeful - we chatted like we never have before, which was probably a mistake. I now realise remorse does not work like empathy and can only be felt had the individual actaully been involved with an act in which they could come to regret. A coma, it would seem, is a loophole in which Sun readers can easily resume being spoonfed opinions without even so much as a burp or hiccup.

The morning after Nana had decided to nap out her severe head trauma, Brexiters awoke to the birds singing Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 and the political landscape that came to follow could only be said to resemble the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which that tune is so famously associated. Like Paleolithic man utilising tools in self-declaration that he will no longer stand as a victim of the world, an overwhelming majority of 51.9% of Britons exercised their democratic right and asserted themselves as an active force, determined to take control. And yet we just look like apes smashing things up.

Last my Nana and I spoke of the EU referendum, she was undecided and of the political disposition whereby any uninformed opinions held would be immediately amended upon receiving counter information that had the likes of facts, reasonably concluded estimates and, above all, people who knew what they were talking about proposing it. Well, that's what I assumed. We never spoke about politics - previous years, it was all hot chocolates and The Tennis. Presumably, while comatose, a very chatty Rupert Murdoch had been her nurse, because as soon as she could speak again, she was voicing a claustrophobic unease toward imaginary Turkish figures in the room. Something in the air, I think - she was emboldened. Soon she was ignoring doctors and insisting on going home, claiming "the people have had enough of experts".

Despite this almost telepathic validation, Nana had no idea of the events that had unfolded during the three weeks of her coma, and naturally, it was my obligation to fill her in. Naive as she was, I had to explain why David Cameron's resignation was not the gift it may at first seem. How Labour had collapsed in on themselves like a dying star. "Core bin?" She asks, "I must get round to doing the recycling, yes." The surge in racist and xenophobic hate crimes. Her favourites, Boris ("sweet lad") Johnson and Nigel Farage, I described as children who had expressed a keen interest in a hobby only to later tell their parents, who supported them wholeheartedly and booked a lifetime's worth of lessons, that they can't be bothered to go anymore. What was "scare mongering" before is now just reporting. Andrea Leadsom, a character straight out of a David Lynch production, appears and disappears as quickly as you can say "a very real stake". David Cameron is responsible for leaving yet another family without a home, but hums a merry tune as he knows very well him and Samantha won't be taking the children to the foodbank. Meanwhile, Theresa (not the one from bingo) May is sat back watching London burn on a scale not seen since 1666. This campaign technique proves successful and she is set to become our prime minister. With a capital M, Nana - I don't even want to begin to speculate on what she may or may not do.

"Well, I never!" She voices. A would-be leave voter, I press no further. I daren't even suggest the second referendum petition. What's done is done, we agree, and mindmap ideas on how to better the future of our nation's heart and soul. This polarising won't help anything! We put on some world music and stay up through the night, sketching blueprints and chatting, challenging each other's prejudices - a real edifying process. You see, I do not have to agree with you to respect your opinions or love you as a person.

Come 5am, however, I glance over at what Nana has been working on, only to spot phrases like "send them back", "great again" and "health and safety gone mad".

Nana, I said, I wish you'd died in that coma.

As a woman, my country is the whole world

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Nationalism, religion & individualism are three very pernicious things. The first and second involve an unwavering commitment to an abstract idea of a righteous authority, and the last implies that authority can be found within yourself. This is not to differentiate the latter from the former: our country, our God is misleading - it is yours. Subjectivity is an individual phenomenon, but it is legitimised with numbers. Faith, whether in the name of a country, religious belief, or personal opinion, by definition, is an outlook that pays no mind to scientific methods of reason, or difference of opinion. In these instances, 'we' is not plural - it denotes a shared mindset, one that functions on the faith of personal righteousness. It limits inclusivity and ultimately, legitimate personhood, to shared experience, functioning more as a royal we rather than any real collectivist thought.

Virginia Woolf articulated this as a gendered concept:

poems on gender

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I found these poems buried in some forgotten digital folders. They're old enough for me not to care about sharing them, as they don't seem too personal anymore.

What am I?

I am the study of a performance.
I am the student of the theatre.
Their confrontation is like
A stab in the heart.

Your body is a battleground: female puberty

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When adolescents develop acne during puberty, they are reassured of its transitory nature. It is a unwanted introduction into a world of relentless scrutiny, your previously unassuming body of a child becoming a signifier to who you are, what you represent. Those lucky enough to have just the occasional spot need only make minor adjustments to their self-image, but for those with more obvious, severe acne, being around others is not an unconscious act. Ultimately, however, this will pass (or the worst of it will). How, then, do we comfort those girls and boys who suffer body dysphoria as a result of this other unforeseen pubescent change, one which alters the way you occupy space for a lifetime?

Frequently when puberty is discussed in the likes of sex-ed classes, it is assumed the difficulty surrounding bodily changes isn't a gendered issue, but more along the lines of aligning your pre-pubescent sense of self with a your new, adult body. It is de-politicised, the society that receives the body is not considered - it is a personal reconciliation. But for girls in particular, the transition into a visibly sexed body is made all the more tumultuous by these external factors, attempts at restoring a mind/body unity are constantly undermined by a our pornified culture. In these classes, if porn is mentioned, we are told that this is not 'real', that it exists in the distant realm of fantasy; but when almost half of girls between thirteen and seventeen in the UK have reported being coerced into sex acts, these well-meaning dismissals deny the very real ramifications of porn for young girls.

In her recent post, Glosswitch opens with: "breasts are curious things. They sprout on you, unbidden, transforming you from child – generic, self-contained, human – to woman, that cartoonish parody of a person." When a mother finds her son or daughter has been rummaging through her bedroom, standing there in oversized heels and lipstick across their face, it is so obviously ridiculous; however, it is the daughter that, when she comes of age, is encouraged into this daily costume - whether she likes it or not. It could've been harnessed as a means of self expression by either child, but instead, it becomes a vital step in the processes of othering a girl from herself. As John Berger writes, "From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."

For those with acne, the market that profits from their insecurities is limited to drugstore shelves, a preoccupation with how you feel others perceive you is mostly paranoia. For women, others' perceptions soon become your defining merit. When forging her identity as a woman, in her developing body, she will have no choice but to define herself using the stimuli she encounters around her - a choice Gail Dines notes is a choice between visible or invisible. She will encounter porn, on the sites or the more insidious manifestations in the media, and learn what it means to have breasts, thighs and ultimately a vagina in our society. She will come across the dehumanisation of the female form on a daily basis, and perhaps come to yearn for a model's androgyny, whereby she can be as feminine or as masculine as she likes without inconvenience. Thinness is promoted as the canvas for expression, while women who have not successfully abated typically feminine weight gains are left with what's 'flattering' and 'appropriate'; bigger women in this industry exist either in mother's catalogs or perpetually undressed in beach campaigns - the qualifier 'plus size' distinguishing them from 'real' models, they are ostracised for their inauthenticity. Berger is absolutely right: "the surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." It is almost impossible to escape the sexualisation of the female body when you have an overtly female body. For myself and Glosswitch, this conflict manifested itself in an eating disorder, I was a "flat-chested non-binary in the body of a matronly ciswife", convinced my breasts and thighs didn't represent who I was, as a human.

So what do we do about it?

We could become 'empowered' - not only chose to be visible in a pornified culture, but to weaponise it as a source of power and strength. Grown men would cower in our heeled shadows, our eyeshadow the colour of male tears and our lipstick...cis-white-male blood. Higher pitched declarations of bitch, slut and cunt serve as subversions. Take that sugar daddy for all he's got. Who run the world? Girls. Except they don't...

Revlon, L'Oréal, Rimmel, Maybelline, Barry M, Bourjois, Max Factor, Illamasqua, Dior, MAC and Lancome are just some of the many makeup brands founded and CEO'd by men. Parent companies include Revlon, L'Oréal, Estee Lauder, Proctor & Gamble, Coty Inc and LVMH - all of which have male CEOs. The rare brands that are founded by women like Estee Lauder, Benefit and Urban Decay are also owned by these companies. The idea that makeup somehow threatens male power is unfounded - those who ultimately control these industries are men - it only adds figures to the end of their bank balance. The empowerment mantra promoted in pop culture by the likes of Beyonce is an individualist notion that excludes those without the means to empower themselves, while ignoring the exploitation of those in third world countries that are vital to it's production. Cosmetic companies like Estee Lauder and  L'Oréal rely on illegal child labour, while Beyonce's own Ivy Park range utilizes underpaid sweatshop workers (eighty percent of which are women). That there should be a class of people that exist to further the pleasure of the ruling elite only perpetuates inequality and shouldn't be masked as progressive.

And this is just for what your face should look like, based on your body. It is a gender role that females are socialised into, which some accept more readily than others. Those who are uncomfortable could reject 'girl'. Perhaps your gender identity is more along the lines of non-binary, but as Sarah Ditum summarises, "the idea of mobility or fluidity or non-binariness presupposes a rigid structure containing the majority, as a backdrop to exceptionality." To say you are 'non-binary', assumes the naturalness of a binary - to define yourself in relation to something is to validate what you are defining yourself by - that you subscribe to the idea without participating in it. For those who transition to the opposite sex, you must establish what that means - if woman/man does not denote the infinitely varied experiences (even if they are 'cis' experiences) of biological females/males, surely all that's left to scrap together a definition with is dependent on stereotypes. Transgender people have the right to express themselves in anyway they chose, and to be respected, and if medical transition will alleviate intense body dysphoria then it is, of course, an option; however, as Helen Lewis rightly comments "separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysphoria is vital." The converging of the two in 'gender dysphoria' obscures the artificial and imposed nature of gender roles and pathologises resistance to them. For children, studies have shown most cases of gender dysphoria do not persist into adulthood, but the increasingly accepted notion of an innate gender, that personality and sex are somehow linked in anyway other than retrograde associations, is seeing more children encouraged onto puberty blockers.

When you aren't comfortable with the associations of your sex, the post-pubescent body is so often vilified as a sort of imposter to one's sense of self. It is important to recognise that sex precedes these associations, and that they are imposed as a result of it. You could make the best out of this circumstance, become empowered, or you could reject it as a personally incompatible gender identity. In my opinion, these are false solutions - the first is problematic, the latter does nothing to blur the lines between 'man' and 'woman', it blurs only the language in which we are able to talk about sex-based oppression. For girls socialised into a world that unfairly limits their expression, movement and bodily autonomy, it is absolutely necessary to recognise these are not the experiences of a self-identified group, one that can be opted in or out of based on the embodiment of femininity or not. The simple fact that had I been born on a neighbouring island, it would be illegal to have an abortion just goes to show my attitudes towards my female body, whether in dysphoric self-loathing or cisgendered positivity, do not change the attitudes of society toward my female body. Barbara Kruger is right when she states "your body is a battleground", but it must not become a civil war.

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