Sometimes I like to play a little game with myself called, “What would a world designed by women look like?” (I know; I’m great fun at parties.)
The first things that jump to mind are always fairly minor inconveniences, like high shelves and heavy doors. Shop space designed by women would surely bring the higher shelves down by a few inches, and big double doors wouldn’t require me to shove all my weight against them in order to pass through. On this note, it was only last week that Apple faced criticism for making their phones too big for women’s hands. Which admittedly sounds a bit #firstworldproblems, but it’s also fair enough, and we do need to question why the default body around which our world is designed must always be male. Besides, who actually needs a phone the size of a mortuary slab?
It never takes long for my mind to wander to the more visceral side of womanhood – the flesh, the blood, the pain, the moments of strange powerlessness. In a world designed by women, I know for a fact there’d be far more public loos than there are currently. Ask for Angela schemes would be in place in every pub, club, gig venue and coffee shop across the country. And maybe, just maybe we’d be able to talk about the physical nonsense a lot of us have to deal with every sodding month without worrying that the men around us will faint dead away with disgust. Back in 2013, Caitlin Moran wrote about how you never see periods onscreen:
“All other manifestations of blood are fine, of course: approaching my forties, I couldn’t begin to calculate the millions of gallons of blood I’ve seen from shot men’s heads exploding like melons…”
And in 2018, not a huge amount has changed. Carrie Mathison never has to take a break from saving America because the Red Wedding has begun and she’s eating ibuprofen like Skittles and crying into a cinnamon bun the size of her head. I can name perhaps three shows that have flown the (red) flag for menstruation representation – Fleabag, Girls, and Broad City.
And then there’s our attitudes to expectant mothers and childbirth. Last month, the charity Birthrights released its report* on the availability of ‘maternal request’ caesareans. Why did it conduct this investigation? Because a third of enquiries the organisation received were from women who had concerns about daring to ask for a caesarean without a medical reason. So what did the investigation show? That only 26% of NHS trusts fully complied with the NICE guidance that women should be allowed to choose C-sections without medical grounds.
Now, I understand that caesareans are, on their own, more expensive for the NHS than vaginal deliveries. But if you take into account the treatment of injuries sustained during “natural” childbirth, and then therapy and/or medication for PTSD that can occur after a traumatic birth, then the cost reason starts to look a little less clear-cut.
*Full report here.
And the argument that “women have been doing it for years, it’s the most natural thing in the world” just doesn’t wash anymore. Google “maternal mortality rates through history” and feast your eyes upon graphs with cliff-like drops from 1900 onwards (though parts of Africa still see 500-1000 deaths per 100,000 births). Women don’t die as much as they used to because medicine has helped them not to. What’s more, it’s estimated that about a third of female doctors opt for planned caesareans, while among the general public, elective C-sections account for about 11-12% of births. We can draw our own conclusions there.
Another bit of Feminist News reported last week was that the fear of childbirth is apparently on the increase – and it was suggested that social media and forums like Mumsnet were to blame. As someone who would very much like children (not for a good two or three years yet, Mum, don’t panic) but who’s also physically incapable of watching One Born Every Minute, I can’t help but read that story as “women being honest about childbirth leads to other women very reasonably questioning the whole endeavour”. Yes, of course it’s the negative stories, the really dramatic, awful accounts that are more likely to be told and retold, but even allowing for that fact, it’s wrong to point the finger at women being too chatty on the internet. God knows social media will be the death of us all, but it has facilitated a lot of much-needed conversations, and helped us shed light on things we used to choke back. Let the women talk.
Because it’s baffling that this is the stuff of life and death we’re talking about, and yet we’re only just now learning how to talk about it. It’s only been in the last few years that the reality of women’s existence has come into public conversations. And this isn’t to say that being a woman is endlessly, relentlessly awful, not at all. Our friendships run deeper, on the whole, than male friendships. We live longer. We are, biologically, better survivors than men.
A lot of progress has been made in recent years. The #MeToo movement in particular seems to have really bedded into public consciousness, and slowly but steadily, more space is being made for women to do things, to take charge, to tell their stories, to be heard. The very fact that we’re questioning inequalities, pointing them out, is encouraging. On the one hand, it’s infuriating that things like shared parental leave, closing gender pay gaps, and improved access to abortion are coming into effect now – and on the other, these things are crucial, inching steps in right direction.
But despite what a lot of men on the internet seem to think, a handful of wins for women does not an equal society make.
Every so often, something happens that reminds us how long the to-do list of feminism remains. Ireland’s referendum on the Eighth Amendment shone an unforgiving spotlight on how women are thought of – still. The idea that abortion should remain off-limits persists – that it’s acceptable for a woman to suffer both emotionally and physically for one mistake, one accident, one strike of bad luck. There should be no backstop. Women’s bodies are still public property, fertile ground for opinions and judgement and unasked-for attention.
Young women must still have perfect bodies; not too thin, not too fat, attractive, sexy – but crucially, not too much. We fear women with appetites, we don’t know what to do with women who do not fear pleasure.
If you become pregnant, you’re asked to surrender your body in a different way. If you choose not to have children, you have to explain yourself. And once you’re over 45, you’re expected to fade into the background.
We spend the first part of our lives being told our bodies must be deemed acceptable by the general public and the next part of it being told we exist purely for our children, if we have them, and to generally not take up too much space if we don’t.
The thing about being a woman is that we never fully belong to ourselves. Still.