Why I Love Your Body But Hate Mine

I told Tilly I would write this months ago, and each week when she’s asked where my post is, I’ve shrank away with muttered excuses of ‘too much work’ and ‘nine articles to edit by tomorrow morning’.

And this is part of it of course, the unending exhaustion and boredom of third year, but the bigger part, the part I didn’t tell Tilly, was that I don’t know the words to choose to talk about the body that I carry around with me each day. I don’t know the words I can use to talk about my fear of it, my occasional hatred of it, my awe that it has brought me this far.

It’s a complicated thing, this relationship we have with our bodies. They are the one constant of our lives, we are born with it and we will die with it, it is inanimate at the same time as being the most animated thing we hold in this world. It has no feelings but it expresses itself with every emotion that flickers through our brains throughout the course of the day.

And yet for all its wonder, for all the amazing things it can do, as women the discourse that surrounds our bodies is invariably to do with the size of them. ‘You’re so tall, I’m so jealous’, ‘Wow, you’ve lost so much weight’, ‘I don’t want to sound like a bitch but she’s put on a couple of pounds recently, hasn’t she?’

I can’t remember the last time I heard myself say the words ‘My body is so strong! It helped me swim twenty five lengths in the pool today without stopping’, or ‘My body needed a rest today.’ However I can tell you that I say things like ‘I am so fat’ (and unfortunately, I am not one of those women who can happily accept her fat, even at a size 12 I am constantly bullying myself to fight against it) and ‘I can’t believe I didn’t exercise today’ on an hourly basis. Why? Why do I do this to myself? Why do women do this to ourselves?

I think it’s because we’ve been taught to value ourselves primarily for our bodies, and for that belief to be validated, they must look and act a certain way. We’ve been taught by the media, by society and by our mothers that our body is what must be developed and punished, that we need to occupy a small amount of space and our bodies need to compress to fit it. We’ve been taught that our bodies must always be a work in progress, that we will never be the complete and perfect finished product. We have been taught that eating a lot of food is ‘greed’. Men are taught that eating a lot of food is ‘manly’. Look at the example of Joey from Friends, compared with Monica. Joey’s overeating is endorsed, he is a character we laugh WITH, yet he miraculously stays skinny. Monica, on the other hand, presented as an overweight teenager is a character we are encouraged to be relatively disgusted by. We laugh AT her because she is fat, and her ‘significant character growth’ into an adult is not represented by her financial or emotional development. It’s represented by the fact that she gets her eating ‘under control’ and becomes skinny.

My one, flawed, example is presented time and time again not only in the media but in real life. Two years ago, I became very unwell with anxiety and depression and lost one and a half stone in the space of six weeks. Even friends and family who were aware of my illness congratulated me on the loss, as if it was something to be proud of, as if it was even in my control. My body was being praised whilst my mind was in the depths of self-destruction, and it was the most warped thing imaginable.

I sit, two years on, with that extra one and a half stone plus some, resting on my tummy and hips. And rather than being contented that I’m no longer depressed, I sometimes catch myself looking at pictures of myself in that time and thinking ‘Yeah, your head was a state but damn girl, you looked hot’.

And that thought, whenever it catches me unaware, is so ridiculous, so destructive, that I have to write about it. And I have to write about it to make myself believe that I am my body, and yet I am so much more than it. And that for every moment I spend fat-shaming it, I am dishonouring not only myself but the feminist values that I try my best to live my life by.

Some of us can’t change the way we feel about our bodies overnight. Some of us look on the women who accept their bodies happily with awe and jealousy. Some of us don’t know how to look at ourselves in the mirror and see the great things first. Some of us don’t take joy in clothes shopping, convinced that the cute dress is not meant for women like us.

And the thing is, I’m not just talking about fat women. I’m talking about skinny women, about short women, tall women, women who strike others with envy. Because no matter how we look, there’s always something, something that can be better.

I don’t know what I can do to change this for myself, let alone anyone else. I’ve tried a lot of positivity techniques, I’ve heard every compliment standard to ‘curvy girls’. So I’m going to concentrate on making my body as strong as it can be, for its own sake. I’m going to jump in the swimming pool tonight and work my feminist legs. Because even though, to many of us, they will never be perfect, our bodies will carry us to the places we need to go. And even though I might not love what mine looks like, I’ll try to love it forever for what it can do.

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“Honey, not tonight…” Consent in Long-Term Relationships

I read a lot of articles about consent in hook-up culture, about how we should be careful when we’re with a new partner to learn about their boundaries and respect them. We talk a lot about “enthusiastic consent”, and I can see how, if you’re thinking about the first time you take someone home after a date, that would be important. If it’s the first time you’ve had sex with a person, you  better both want to do it, there’s not really room for any grey areas in that regard.

However I don’t read as much about how consent changes when you’ve been sleeping with the same person for a long time. Sex when you’ve been together for a year is different to when you’ve been together for three months, and it’s very different from your first time. You get used to your partner, you know what they like. You’re used to their rhythms. It’s easier to know which buttons to press. You may start to take them a little bit for granted.

I think, in the vast majority of long-term relationships, you begin to realise that one person’s sex drive is higher than the other. I expect many people reading this will immediately know which person out of themselves and their partner wants sex more often. This situation inevitably involves compromise. Before you leap to any conclusions, I’ve been on both sides of this, and I know how both feel. I know what it feels like to know your partner isn’t really as into it as you are; I know how it feels to just feel a little bit too lazy.

If you want sex less than your partner, it might be that, for the sake of your relationship, you consent to sex less than enthusiastically. But I don’t think, in these circumstances, we should be arguing that this isn’t consent. People have sex for a wide variety of reasons – horniness, loneliness, love, revenge, money. If we start putting some of these reasons on higher levels than others, we begin to devalue some kinds of relationships – an asexual person may have sex in order to keep their partner happy, despite having no desire for it themselves. That is their choice.

So, when does compromise become a lack of consent? It’s very hard to say, and it depends on the power dynamics of each individual relationship. If one person is worried that the other may leave them if they don’t fulfil their needs sexually, that’s not OK. If one person feels physically threatened by the other – for example, if there is a difference in size or strength – that’s not OK.

Pressure is difficult to identify in relationships, though, because you can only feel it if you’re on the wrong side of it. And even if one person desires sex more than the other, it is important that both partners have equal amounts of sexual agency; that they both feel equally able to initiate and deny sex. If one person initiates more frequently, it might be important to step back and check with your partner that things are OK – simply asking the question can never be a mistake.

It is also important to remember that “no” means “no”. This is particularly important for men to remember, as they have often been socialised to regard a woman’s refusal as the start of a negotiation. We see it in films all the time – a woman who at first is uninterested in a man’s advances is eventually won over by his persistence (see: Will Smith in Hitch, Zac Efron in The Last Kiss… the list goes on). If your girlfriend says she doesn’t feel like having sex, when you do, that’s tough. Don’t ask again – trust that if she changes her mind, she will initiate. Surely you would do the same if roles were reversed?

So many friends have told me stories of their boyfriends trying to change their minds about things they don’t want to do, from cunnilingus to period sex to anal. Maybe she will change her mind as she becomes more comfortable with you, but if you’ve already flagged it as something you’re ok with, you don’t need to keep asking her. Trust me when I tell you, she will remember the time she told someone she cared a lot about that she didn’t want to do something he wanted to, and if she ever changes her mind, you’ll be the first to know.

Because that’s the thing that makes consent in long term relationships a lot more difficult than in firs time encounters – the fact that you  have grown to really care about your partner. You hate disappointing them. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s not enjoying their favourite film or cancelling a date because of work or not wanting to have sex, letting  your partner down does make you feel guilty. It’s really important that you never manipulate this guilt to put pressure on your partner. Every time you have to answer the same question with the word “no”, it gets harder. You shouldn’t have to ever say it more than once.

Hattie Grunewald

The Handmaid’s Tale and feminism: Examining characterisation in Atwood’s novel

Although a feminist story, The Handmaid’s Tale gives some surprisingly sympathetic portrayals of men while those of women can be critical. Men are the most mysterious characters; they are the ones we know least about and the ones that Offred can provide the least insight into beyond patriarchal society, dominant male figures, and sexual predators. Few male characters have more than functional roles of the patriarchal state. Most have no names, only group identities such as the Angels, the Eyes, and the Doctor, except for those who Offred has immediate relationships with such as Nick and the Commander. Atwood herself states that feminism is a broad term covering anything from ‘pushing men off cliffs to allowing women to read and write in Afghanistan’. Through the characters of Serena Joy and Moira she looks at how women’s own misunderstanding of men and feminism could result in a backlash and repression leading to a women’s way of survival that could be critical.

Nick is a romantic rather than a realistic figure, the mysterious stranger who is Offred’s rescuer through love. He is more relaxed than other members of Gilead society, wearing his hat at an angle and winking at her. She also describes details of his appearance which prevent him from seeming threatening, ‘creases around the mouth where he smiles’ p.28, whereas everyone else is described by the clothes that they wear, symbolising their status. At household prayers he presses his foot against hers causing a sensual warmth that she is unwilling to acknowledge. During the daytime he is a comic figure, at night her lover, which is made more particular as he is acting under orders either by the Commander or Serena Joy. Like Offred, he is subordinate and therefore has to remain passive until ordered to go to bed with Offred by Serena Joy. Of this first encounter Offred gives three different descriptions; his attitude is not directly described and he remains a figure that cannot be fully understood, realised or analysed. However, in defiance of danger she repeatedly returns to him and clearly falls in love with him, yet the lack of emotional response and understanding between them that is described and revealed to the reader makes it difficult to ascertain to what degree it is love or simply sexual desire. Nevertheless her description of their lovemaking is suggestive rather than simply erotic. At no point does the reader witness a direct conversation; therefore it is difficult to establish an analysis of him and his motives. Importantly she tells him her real name, something that is not even revealed to us, underlining the intimacy of their relationship. We want to believe that he is in love with Offred, yet he is the only member of the household not present when she departs. It can be taken from the Historical Notes that he did rescue her and was a member of the Mayday resistance. As a character he is very lightly described and his most significant role is as her lover, yet it is not a romantic story. Instead her relationship with him underlines the conflict she experiences of loyalty and sexual desires which eventually outweigh her loyalty to Luke and desire to escape.

The Commander is the most powerful authority figure in Offred’s life. He is a high-ranking government official and it is to him that she is assigned so as to take his name. This is similar to slavery before the abolition; once slaves were freed from their masters they would often take the same surname. Yet the Commander is an ambiguous figure, substantial and shadowy, whose motivations remain constantly unclear. An elderly man with ‘straight neatly brushed silver hair’ and a moustache and blue eyes, his manner is mild p.97, and Offred likens him to a Mid-Western bank manager. She sees him lurking by her room and trying to peer at her as she walks past, p.59. demonstrating that he presents himself as a typical male power, isolated and benignly indifferent to his domestic affairs. He performs ceremony in dress uniform and she describes his actions as ‘fucking’, with his eyes shut – making him into a comical figure. As Offred begins to know him his typical male power stereotype starts to fall away. He asks her to meet him in his study ‘after hours’ and it is revealed that he is a lonely man who requires friendship and intimacy. He does not ask her for kinky sex but instead to play scrabble, the most domestic and mundane of pastimes which appears an incredulous past normality to her. He offers her books and magazines consisting of a once normal life which are now forbidden to her, asking only for a kiss at the end of the night. This reveals a more complex characteristic to the Commander. He is an old-fashioned gentleman who treats her in a somewhat patronising way, ‘In fact he is positively daddyish’ p.193. Despite his obscure motives they manage to develop an amiable relationship. However it is still a matter of sexual power politics in which the Commander is dominant. He is traditional in his views and patriarchal assumptions, ‘Natures norms’ p.232 with which he describes Jezebels where they have a private sexual encounter. When Offred is taken away from the house of the Commander for the last time she sees him looking ‘old, worried and helpless’, expecting his own downfall shortly and in this way Offred had her revenge upon him for the balance of power between them, ‘Possibly he will be a security risk, now. I am above him, looking down; he is shrinking’.

As the Commanders wife, Serena Joy is the most powerful female presence in the daily life in Gilead. Offred can observe her in her social role as one of the Wives but also at close quarters in her own home and she appears as more than just a member of a class of hierarchy. Unlike the other Wives she is referred to by her own name, but she is elderly and childless and therefore has to agree to having a handmaid in her own home as she cannot produce children herself. She clearly resents Offred as a reminder of her inability to have children and as a violation of the sanctity of marriage. It is ironic that we learn she was previously an ultra-conservative voice on domestic policies and the place of women within the home. Offred observes this as she is trapped within the ideology which she created, ‘She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her’, p.56. Serena Joy’s only place of power is her living room, where she has nothing to do but knit scarves for the Angels, and her place for expression is her garden. Yet even there she has to be assisted by her husband’s chauffer. Despite her apparently submissive status as a Wife, there is a harsh toughness and masculinity about Serena Joy. She lacks femininity, which juxtaposes her husbands ‘daddyishness’ and perhaps susceptibility to manipulation or pliability by Offred for hand creams, magazines, and pieces of information. Serena Joy, unlike her husband, has no weakness of ‘nature’s norms’ and therefore no susceptibility. It is impossible for anyone to know what she is thinking. In Serena’s cigarette smoking and use of slang we see evidence for this toughness. It is at her suggestion that Offred sleep with Nick to become pregnant, ‘She is actually smiling, coquettishly’ p.216. Serena Joy represents two aspects of Gileadean society, the role of dutiful Wife as a privileged status, as well as a twisted plot in infidelity and the extremes that people are willing to adopt in able to conceive. This is arguably a method of survival for perhaps desperate women, pushed to this extreme by inability to conceive and the social structure, which she ironically contributed to herself. However Serena is still unforgivable for she has her own revenge too, deliberately with-holding from Offred the news of her lost daughter and a photograph of her which Offred has been longing for. Serena is beside the commander when Offred leaves the house, her farewell to Offred holds none of the pieties of Gilead, ‘“Bitch,” she says. “After all he did for you.”’ p.299. Serena Joy demonstrates the very ineffectiveness of falsity of Gilead society and the criticism of her from a feminist perspective is criticism of anti-feminists and also of the perfection, which is a symbol of a decaying and flawed society.

Moira is the only female character within the narrative that is portrayed positively and with admiration by the narrator as she constantly resurfaces in the narrative. She is the embodiment of resistance and rebellion, identified by her own first name because she never became a handmaid. From Offred’s point of view she embodies female heroism, although from the point of view of Gilead she is criminal. Although brought to the Red Centre, she manages to escape on her second attempt, disguised as an Aunt, which was not only comical but is symbolic of her refusal to conform to the Gilead class basis. She therefore becomes what all other Handmaids would like to be but don’t dare and Offred envies her courageous resistance, ‘Moira was our fantasy… We hugged her to us, she was us in secret, a giggle; she was the lava beneath the crust of daily life’ p.143. However when Offred last meets Moira at the Jezebels, she finds that she did not manage to escape to freedom but was instead caught at the border and sent to the brothel where she says she will have three or four good years before being sent out to the colonies. In this final meeting it appears that Moira’s spirit has been broken by Gilead, yet she still declares herself to be a lesbian and her values as a feminist and as a heroine lie in her speaking out and challenging tyranny and oppression.

In conclusion, although written from a feminist perspective The Handmaid’s Tale allows for closer analysis of characters to understand the complexities of an oppressed society. It does not simply deal with the oppression of women; Gilead outlaws choice, emotion and free will. Pornography, sexual violence and infidelity are all outlawed but so is love. It is not merely oppression of women, but oppression of human rights. Atwood is highlighting that we see gender roles too plainly, that this is both true of men and women.

 Sophie Peters