The letter I just sent to Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger
Dear House Speaker Bolger,
First, I’d like to tell you how flattered I am that the Michigan House of Representatives has taken an interest in my uterus. It’s really sweet to know that you’re dedicated to protecting my womb and its contents from, say, doctors who would try to coerce me into an abortion, because maybe that really is a thing somewhere. And I totally understand how you might like to be able to pass laws concerning my reproductive organs without actually having to hear about my reproductive organs, or Representative Lisa Brown’s reproductive organs, or any female genitalia of any kind. Let’s face it: “vagina” is a pretty gross word. I don’t like it much either, to be honest.
But here’s the thing. I’m not sure that we can really talk about women’s reproductive health without talking about women’s reproductive parts, and I’m thinking that maybe women should be able to participate in that conversation. I’d like to suggest a compromise. Instead of telling Representative Brown to sit down and shut up and let the menfolk do the talking, you offer your colleagues a choice of friendly, utterly non-threatening euphemisms for all that stuff “down there”. To facilitate this compromise, I’ve prepared this list for you:
- Honey Pot
- Vertical Smile
- Pearly Purse
- Tunnel of Love
- Lady Jane
- Gentleman’s Pleasure Garden
- Nature’s Tufted Treasure
- Fancy Bits
- Mrs. Kitty
- The Downtown Dining and Entertainment District
- Naughty Bits
- Goody Wagon
- Cream Puff
- Magic Cave
- Her Majesty
- Hot Pocket
Please accept this list as my thanks for HB 5711, HB5712, and HB5713.
Our Daughters’ Bodies, Ourselves
My daughter, who is five, knows where babies come from. She knows what menstruation is. She knows the word “vagina” and we do not use any cute euphemisms for that part of her body.
My daughter sees my naked body all the time. This is partly because she doesn’t really get—or doesn’t really care—that I might like a little privacy when I’m dressing and undressing. But one of the reasons I don’t police my own privacy too much is because I want my daughter to know what a woman’s body looks like. I want her to know that my soft, roundish, un-waxed, basically healthy forty-one-year-old body is an acceptable shape for the female form to take. I don’t make my body a mystery to my daughter, because I do not want her body to be a mystery.
My daughter loves my body. Not too long ago, it was a source of nourishment. Once upon a time, it was home. It’s still a source of comfort. My daughter has no idea that my body should be anything other than what it is.
Since the day she was born, my husband and I have shaped our talk about her body to emphasize health, strength, and agency. When she was tiny, we praised her for being so big and strong. Now that she’s big and strong, we let friends, family, and strangers coo about her gorgeous eyes and amazingly long lashes, while we marvel at the powerful legs required to pedal a Big Wheel so fast. Our daughter’s body is not something for other people to look at and admire. It is hers, to nurture and use and enjoy.
I’m thinking about all this because, like a lot of my feminist fellow travelers, I was dismayed by the recent episode of Dance Moms in which girls between the ages of eight and twelve perform a burlesque routine, and the essay from the April issue of Vogue in which a woman describes putting her seven-year-old on a diet.
I don’t watch Dance Moms, so I can’t say that the mothers on that show are living vicariously through their daughters, but I have watched enough clips to know that they have basically abdicated responsibility for their children and accepted the authority of their dance coach. Given that “reality” shows are designed to create conflict and controversy, I feel confident in suggesting that the dance coach has embraced her own monstrosity at the encouragement of the show’s producers. If there weren’t actual children being hurt by her desire to shock, she’d be a rather compelling character. But she is hurting actual children, and her apparent desire to teach these children that they are commodities is repellent—and particularly perverse, since little girls who have worked so hard to become incredible dancers should be able to take some pride in and ownership of their achievements.
The Vogue story is even more troubling to me, because I really don’t think either the author or the publication intended to be provocative. Ostensibly a mother’s own account of helping her daughter to achieve a healthy weight, it’s actually a profoundly upsetting portrait of a woman trying to pass on her own dysfunctional relationship with food and her own body. It’s made all the more harrowing by the daughter’s resistance, and the mother’s steely insistence that new-won thinness is a kind of existential rebirth:
For Bea, the achievement is bittersweet. When I ask her if she likes how she looks now, if she’s proud of what she's accomplished, she says yes... Even so, the person she used to be still weighs on her. Tears of pain fill her eyes as she reflects on her yearlong journey. “That’s still me,” she says of her former self. “I’m not a different person just because I lost sixteen pounds.” I protest that, indeed, she is different. At this moment, that fat girl is a thing of the past. A tear rolls down her beautiful cheek... “Just because it’s in the past,” she says, “doesn't mean it didn't happen.”
My point is this: If we don’t want anyone else to own our daughters’ bodies, we need to be the first ones to teach our daughters that their bodies belong to them. We can care for them. We can nurture them. We can help them learn to make good choices by presenting them with healthful options. But we can’t own them. We can’t shape them. And we sure as hell can’t live through them. And if we want our daughters to be strong and happy in their bodies, we need to show them how to do that by being strong and happy in our own bodies.
Here’s the thing about women: They are, by their very nature, loose.
While men are like tempered steel—hard, unchanging, complete, perfect—women are in a constant state of flux. They are fluid, unfinished, always becoming. They are permeable, designed to be penetrated by men and inhabited by babies. They bleed without being cut.
Women are, obviously, dangerous—to themselves, to everyone else.
Women need fathers. They need husbands. They need careful governance and physical restraint, male-defined codes of behavior and the sheltering walls of the domestic sphere.
These ideas are as old as Aristotle and as current Rush Limbaugh’s attempted slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke. Critics—myself among them—have noted that Limbaugh’s attack had nothing to do with Fluke’s actual testimony, but this excellent piece reminds me that, yes, of course it does. A woman speaking as a public citizen is, in Limbaugh’s worldview, essentially the same as a woman making herself sexually available, and a woman who assumes her own sexual agency is, by definition, undiscriminating in her pursuit of partners. She is out of control.
Consider the word “slut” itself. When it entered the English language in the fourteenth century, it meant an untidy or slovenly woman, and we can still find it used that way in Victorian literature. But the shift from that sense to current usage was a minor one given that a woman who is sloppy in her housekeeping will, of course, be sexually sloppy as well. All female sins can be reduced to same one: a refusal to allow men to define and control female sexuality.
Or maybe it’s this: a refusal to accept that a woman is defined and controlled by her sexuality. When Limbaugh cast Fluke as a whore, he was putting her back in her place—the place where he wants her to stay, the place where he has the power to tell her what she is and what she should be. Limbaugh ignored the content of what Fluke had to say because the very fact of her saying anything at all was, as Bady points out in the aforementioned essay, a threat to his privilege. It is, in fact, a threat simply because it calls attention to that privilege (and, by extension, the privilege of the Congressmen who also chose not to hear Fluke speak). When men like Limbaugh call women sluts, it’s because they’re afraid of them.
They should be.
A Worthy Adversary
I read this article on the closing of Dr. George Tiller’s clinic yesterday and I can’t get it out of my head. It’s the final two paragraphs that I can’t stop thinking about:
“A worthy adversary,” he said. “He was right back at us.”
Mark Gietzen is the chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life. He made it his organization’s particular goal to shut down Dr. Tiller’s clinic. Speaking of his own work and that of other anti-choice activists, Gietzen said, ““We wanted it to get to the point where it was no longer feasible to stay open.”
Here’s my problem: If you think that abortion is murder, and if your objective is to eradicate it, shouldn’t you want an opponent to simply surrender?
Gietzen’s appreciation for his “worthy adversary”—not to mention his devotion to elaborate stagecraft and publicity—suggests that he is more invested in waging his battle than winning it. This, to me, unconscionable. I don’t have reason to suspect the sincerity of Gietzen’s opposition to abortion, but his comments make it seem very much as if his activism is not just about saving the “unborn”, but also about power and control.
Even a cursory look at the anti-choice movement shows that many—if not most—of its leaders are men, and that there is significant overlap between anti-choice groups and Christian churches that espouse a theological basis for the subordination of women. I will not be the first to argue that this is no coincidence.
Our Babies, Ourselves
When I first saw the cover of November 28 New York Times Magazine, I was eager to read Alex Kuczynski’s story about having a child via surrogate—not so much because I am especially interested in infertility, but because Kuczynski is a writer I love to hate. I was pretty sure that her first-person narrative was going to give me plenty of fuel for my antipathy.
I was pretty much right, but, after a couple of pages, though, I thought to myself, “This is only going to make you crazy and filled with spite, and then you are going to feel guilty and conflicted about the spite because you don’t actually know what it’s like to want a baby and not be able to have one, and that’s just no fun at all.” (I still have not processed all my thoughts and more instinctive reactions to Sarah Palin; indeed, I doubt that any feminist has, and I believe that there could be a whole women’s studies conference devoted to collectively navigating that cognitive and emotional thicket). So, I closed the magazine, but not before I looked at all the photos, which were—as has been noted by the Public Editor and others—outrageous.
I did read the letters to the editor in the latest issue of the magazine, of which there were many. I found this one to be the most interesting, as it raised some substantive, philosophical issues that hadn’t been addressed elsewhere:
That simplistic formulation of so-called gestational surrogacy (“organ rental,” per Kuczynski) may have helped two strangers leap over chasms they couldn’t have traversed otherwise. But it is a shortcut that relies on denigrating concepts, concepts that have historically led to inhumane treatment. As infertility and intervention increasingly muddy the meaning of the word “mother,” we must traverse that terrain and not take shortcuts.
A woman’s body and the growing being inside her participate in an astounding symphony for about 40 weeks to build from egg and sperm a human that can survive outside the woman’s body. The woman’s feelings, thoughts, meals and actions influence that symphony, helping create what the growing being experiences at every moment. Yet Kuczynski literally reduces Cathy’s whole self to her uterus. This is a disturbing denigration of a beautiful, astoundingly complex phenomenon that builds life and that bonds most living beings and their offspring for life.
After reading this, I wondered what my favorite fertility-challenged blogger would have to say about Kuczynski’s article, and I was surprised—and somewhat chastened—by what I found. It was salutary to be reminded that, while Kuczynski’s wealth made it possible to afford 11 IVF cycles, it probably didn’t do anything to relieve the pain she experienced when those attempts to become pregnant failed. And I know that money didn’t help her overcome the grief of 4 miscarriages. I thought about this, and I also thought about the most elegant line from that very wise letter I quoted above: “As infertility and intervention increasingly muddy the meaning of the word ‘mother,’ we must traverse that terrain and not take shortcuts.” My dislike for Kuczynski—which is, if I’m honest about it, mostly sour grapes—allowed me to take a shortcut through her story. It allowed me to dehumanize her, to ignore her very real pain and the complexity of her situation—a situation I have never had to confront. I like to think that I’m better than that, and it’s good to be reminded that I should be.
The Mommy Job
Here’s what I thought about when I read this New York Times article about the “mommy makeover,” a cosmetic-surgery package meant to undo the ravages wrought by pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.
When I read this passage
Many women struggle with the impact of aging and pregnancy on their bodies. But the marketing of the “mommy makeover” seeks to pathologize the postpartum body, characterizing pregnancy and childbirth as maladies with disfiguring aftereffects that can be repaired with the help of scalpels and cannulae.
I thought about how the medical establishment used to treat pregnancy and childbirth themselves as though they were a disease to be cured with drugs and forceps. I thought about how hard women’s health advocates—and mothers themselves—have fought to change attitudes and standards of care so that birth is regarded as a normal activity, one that most healthy women can accomplish with a modest amount of loving, respectful support.
And then I thought about Pushed, a book about the endangered state of physiological childbirth that I reviewed in the latest issue of Bitch. I thought about my own induction into motherhood, and the emergency c-section that I’m still very sad about. I thought about how we, as a culture, seem to be changing our minds about the naturalness and goodness of childbirth—or, and this may be worse, we’re letting our doctors change our minds for us.
I thought about how we use cute nicknames like c-section and tummy tuck and the word “procedure.” I thought about how doctors print up glossy, glamorous brochures describing surgeries as if they were no different than a haircut or a pedicure. I thought about how the popular media frame both the cesarean section and breast augmentation as just a couple more consumer choices. I thought about how this pathologizes a mother’s body, too. If I have sagging breasts and a flabby belly, it’s because I was too cheap, too lazy, too crunchy, too whatever to do something about it. It’s my choice, which really means it’s my fault.
And I thought about how, until really quite recently, womanhood itself was viewed as a deformity. Well into the modern era, the woman’s body was just a flawed copy of a man’s. It was weak, incomplete, and, above all, permeable, and pregnancy and childbirth were, clearly, just the most grotesque symptoms of the malady of womanhood. As I read this article, I thought about how maybe our conception of the female body hasn’t changed that much after all.
Unretouched: Jezebel on the Airbrushing of Faith Hill
I know that airbrushing happens. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to keep that in mind when I’m standing in the checkout line, staring at the covers of the women’s magazines and thinking, “Isn’t she, like, at least as old as me? Why doesn’t she have any crows’ feet? She doesn’t have back-flab pudging out over the top of her strapless dress, either. And look at those arms! They’re the arms of an undernourished adolescent. Jesus, I am such a fat, fucking hag.” That’s why Jezebel’s analysis of the July cover of Redbook is so awesomely valuable. I realize that this has already been all over the Internets—and even the TV—but I really consider it a public service to make sure every media-consuming woman in America sees it. So, here’s the original post, here’s a helpfully annotated version of the un-retouched photo, and here’s the Today Show segment with the adorably naïve title, “Are Magazine Covers for Real?”
The Sanctity of Human Life
Gonzales v. Carhart feels like old news already (which is not to say that its legacy won’t be with us for a long, long time), but I haven’t been able to think about it and write about it as much as I would like—well, I don’t really like talking and thinking about it, but I do feel compelled—because caring for my baby takes up so much of my time and energy. Of course, the fact that I care about my baby at nine months as much as I cared about her before she was born is one of the reasons I find the anti-choice ascendancy so upsetting.
This New York Times article about escalating rates of infant mortality in the South seems to be archived now, but Lawyers, Guns and Money and Feministe both offer succinct analyses of the material, and a brief look at Mississippi tells you pretty much everything you need to know: As a governor who has backed a number of anti-choice laws, Haley Barbour is proud to call his state “the safest place in America for an unborn child,” but he has also presided over welfare and Medicaid cuts that have made Mississippi a decidedly unsafe place for children who have actually been born. Barbour has commemorated the anniversary of Roe v. Wade by calling for “a week of prayer regarding the sanctity of human life,” but his policies are a perfect reflection of Barney Frank’s famous and sadly perfect formulation: While they might call themselves “pro-life,” most anti-choice advocates “believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.” Fetuses are sacred. Babies are expendable.
Thank you, Justice Kennedy, for protecting me from myself.
You want to know what bothers me the most about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gonzales v. Carhart? It’s not that doctors are confused about what, exactly, has been outlawed, since “partial-birth abortion” is not a medical term, but, rather, an inflammatory phrase concocted by the marketing department of the Christianist right. It’s not that it encourages the antichoice movement to launch even more audacious attacks on the American citizenry’s reproductive rights. It’s not even that there’s no exception protecting the health of pregnant women. It’s the breathtakingly paternalist rhetoric Justice Kennedy employed in his explanation of the ruling:
“Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child…. It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child, a child assuming the human form.”
If that doesn’t chill you to the bone, maybe you don’t get what Kennedy is saying.
He is saying that women are not fully rational. That they cannot be trusted to make vital decisions. That they must be protected from themselves. That they are, essentially, children.
I can’t help but wonder what’s next. Perhaps states might make it illegal for women to have sex outside of marriage, as a woman who engages in a one-night-stand might wake up the next morning and realize that she’s a slut. Maybe the professions should be closed to women, lest they reach their late 30s and discover that the corner office is not as fulfilling as they thought it would be and now it’s too late to have a baby. Maybe women should be barred from higher education, since men don’t like girls who are smarter than them. Maybe women should be denied access to desserts because, you know, they might feel all guilty and fat when they realize that crème brûlée has, like, a gazillion calories and three times the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat. I just don’t know. Maybe I better ask my husband.
“Anorexia of the Soul”
I read “For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too”—from the front page of yesterday’s New York Times—with interest and a mounting sense of despair. It’s a profile of high-achieving teenaged girls, and this quotation, I believe, captures the essence of the article:
If you are free to be everything, you are also expected to be everything. What it comes down to, in this place and time, is that the eternal adolescent search for self is going on at the same time as the quest for the perfect résumé.
This is such a bummer. It’s a bummer because the idea that a girl can do anything was supposed to be—and, for many, has been—liberating. It was supposed to mean that a girl could take advanced science classes or run on the track team or be class president; now it seems to mean that a girl must take advanced science classes and run on the track team and be class president if she wants to get into Princeton or Stanford or Reed or Wellesley. Pursuits that should be passions, that should be a source of joy, become an exhausting exercise in brand-building.