Feminist & artist. Writing & visuals.

Your body is a battleground: female puberty

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14.6.16


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.






Unliked sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/11/teenage-girls-coerced-sex-survey

http://waysofseeingwaysofseeing.com/ways-of-seeing-john-berger-5.7.pdf

http://gaildines.com/ch6_excerpt/

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2016/05/so-many-teenage-girls-don-t-want-identify-girls-any-more-and-who-can-blame

https://sexnotgender.com/studies-and-reports-transgender-children/