Monday, 1 December 2008

Gender fucked: what does 'healthy womanhood' look like?

Starting posts with ‘when I was in a mental institution’ is really something I try to avoid. Penny Red is not my personal headspace blog, and it’s not all about Me and My Mental Illness. [If you like that sort of thing, like me, then you should do what I do and read Seaneen Molloy’s fantastic site, mentally interesting.] Penny Red is about politics, and gender, and activism, and poetry, and feminism and freak power. But the personal is political, and sometimes, mental illness is about those things, too.

When I was in a mental institution, a lot of otherwise well-meaning medical professionals conspired to screw up my gender identity pretty much permanently, for the best of reasons (they wanted to help me get better) and the worst (they believed that conforming to received ideas of ‘feminine’ behaviour was the best way for me to demonstrate a new, mentally healthy outlook). They were wrong. I am incredibly grateful for the inpatient treatment I received, which probably saved my life, but my political and personal feminism took a massive battering, and that’s less than entirely forgivable.

Give them their due, they tried. When I turned up, with my seventeen-year-old crew-cut, wild eyes and baggy hoodies, looking like the small scrawny one out of the Jonas Brothers and suffering from anxiety, depression BDD, self-harm and severe anorexia nervosa, their first assumption was that any young woman who wanted to look like a twelve-year-old boy must simply be a Secret Gay.

I am not a Secret Gay. I am an unsecret bisexual - about a 2 on the Kinsey Scale – I consider myself gender-weird and trans-curious, I enjoy wearing drag and I love, love, love the cock. I just love cock, I always have, I always will. I also find women attractive, but that’s not the whole story – in fact, that’s one of the few things in my life that I’ve felt uncomplicatedly comfortable with. My psychiatrist and some of the nurses tried to convince me otherwise, that if I could just come out of the closet I would magically start eating, stop having panic attacks, my family would accept me and all would be well.

Believe it or not, this represents a positive step for the psychiatric profession. They were prepared, within certain rigid limits, to accept non-heteronormativity as an alternative model for good mental health. At no point did anybody (apart from some of the other inmates) suggest to me that if I were a secret gay that would mean that I was somehow a pervert. And that would not have been the case a decade or so ago. It just so happened that they got it horribly wrong.

After months of my stolid defiance, they gave up and tried a different tactic. If I wasn’t Gay, it followed that I must therefore be Straight. If I was Straight, the only healthy option was for me to Accept My Womanhood. A lot of the received wisdom about anorexia is that it’s a method that young women turn to to escape the stresses of modern femininity. Anorexia, the logic goes, removes you from this struggle altogether because when you stop eating, when you cut down from 600 to 400 to 200 calories per day, your periods stop, your curves disappear and you return to an artificial pre-pubescent state. And young women behave like this because they’re scared and angry about the roles that they are being forced into.

Really? Do you think so? Well, gosh, I don’t see any way in which growing up female and Western in the 21st century could possibly be something to want to avoid. They must be mad, those girls.

Well, yes, we were mad. We were completely and utterly bonkers, mental, loopy, batshit insane – but there was a reason. Instead of analysing why we might be unwilling to go through the process of self-subsumation that represents the western journey into ‘womanhood’, the doctors prescribed a strict programme of feminisation for me. I was told in no uncertain terms to grow out my hair, throw away my old baggy black clothes, start wearing skirts, pretty shoes and make-up, sit with my knees together and be less ballsy and confrontational. The other women on my ward, with nothing to do all day, were only too happy to dress me up like a tiny mannequin, teaching me to paint my face and nails and lending me foofy dresses until I was allowed off the ward to buy my own.

Pretty soon, as a day patient, I was getting regular compliments from leery men on the tube about my nice pink low-cut tops and nice tights and nice impression of absolute submission. This represented progress, my doctors told me. Wolf-whistles were something I should be proud of. I was nearly at my target weight: the attention of men in public places, wanted or unwanted, was proof that I was nearly ready to return to normal society as a ‘proper grown-up lady’.

And the worst thing is that I believed it. Desperate and distressed, I was ready to accept that what the doctors told me was true – note that accepting and submitting to the doctor’s rules, however seemingly illogical, is officially an important part of the ‘journey to recovery’ for many psychiatric inpatients, at least in the all-female wards I’ve had the good fortune to visit. I got down on my knees, and I swallowed it all. I lost my feminism. I believed that in order to be truly well, I would have to behave like a ‘proper’ woman: no more demos, no more trousers, no more going out with short hair and no make-up, a boyfriend as soon as possible and certainly no bisexuality. Being a ‘proper’ woman meant fitting yourself out for sexual and physical attention, and that was all there was to it.

It took me years. Years and years of relapse after relapse to even countenance the notion that the part I was acting wasn’t truly myself. Years to get up the courage to cut my hair short again and stop wearing mini-skirts. I listened to ‘normal’ music (whatever was on Radio 1) instead of the shouty punk-rock, riot grrl and folk that I truly love. I stopped reading almost entirely, which was a pain seeing as I was studying literature at the time. I’m still not there yet. I still find it difficult to leave the house without make-up on, and not just because I have low self-esteem, but because a part of me still believes that ‘healthy’ women should look ‘pretty’ at all times. I still try to dress in ways that flatter my body; five years on, I still spend far too much time, money and mental energy ‘fussing’ over my appearance. I’m still nervous to truly express my politics in person, when I’m not with my friends or writing online. I still think I’m too fat, and have to stop myself reading the diet supplements in trashy magazines.

Conforming to feminine norms doesn’t make you a good person. It doesn’t make you a healthy person. Facebook has allowed me to make contact again with some of the hollowed-out husks of desperate, beautiful women I met in hospital, and most of them have now relapsed. Most are too thin, smiling desperately out of fragile, oddly-angled bodies wrapped in clothes they can’t afford and polished for hours with make-up they don’t need. In pictures, their boyfriends and parents hold them like precious ornaments that might snap if they cling on too tight. If that’s real womanhood, I don’t want any of it.

But conformity is safe. No matter how much time and effort you put in to making yourself acceptable and well-behaved, never doubt that it’s the easy option. I never feel more alive, or more free, than days like today when I stamp into work in big boots, a baggy black hoodie covered with slogans, a bobble hat and no make-up. But it takes courage. Courage to step outside the cosy cage of automatic approval and be your own, real person, without rules.

I respect those few, fabulous women for whom living without conforming to stereotypes seems to come effortlessly. Those angels who stride down the streets of London and Birmingham and Brighton apologising to no-one, fizzing with life and snug in their own skins. One day, I’d like to be one of them, and until that day I’m reading all the feminism I can get my hands on and meeting all the inspiring women I can get my hands on I possibly can. I'm writing about feminism and gender identity to raise awareness of just how much these issues affect the lives of everyone in this country and beyond. You won't be hearing reams and reams about my own issues on this blog - that's not what it's for, and besides, a surprising amount of my time is spent trying not to become Elizabeth Fucking Wurtzel. But I thought it might be useful to explain precisely where some of the nebulous feminist rage comes from. I'm alright now. I'm not mad anymore. But I'm pretty damn angry.


  1. That's so fucked up, how the doctors treated you.

    It's really worrying and creepy that they thought enforced gender conformity was a kind of treatment, and they didn't seem to get the idea of bisexuality at all...

    Although I can't say I'm particularly surprised, given how weird the couple of therapists in my family have been about these very two things with me. When I was younger, especially, my psychiatrist aunt would make these little comments about me 'not being very feminine'. I've never actually been in therapy or anything, and obviously I don't know if that's how she'd be with a client or whatever, but it's hardly a good sign, right?

    I think the whole field needs to get it together.


  2. I get that from members of the general public, never mind doctors. They're all illiberal bastards IMHO.

  3. I've had a bit of a struggle with femininity in relation to comforming at university and sexual assault. Though i'd never really related it to my eating disorder before. So thanks for this!!! It's good to know i'm not the only one who feels these pressures.

    I like hearing about your past, because it's inspiring to see how far you've come, and gives me hope that one day i can be as strong as you and leave my madness behind me for greater things.

  4. Too fat? Jesus H. Lice Penny, I've met you and that's preposterous.

    As for your treatment, well it was rather reminiscent of this:

    Seems like our medical health centres/homes are in need of some severe reform. Interesting that your bisexuality was simply seen as an impossibility. That sort of an attitude is one I encounter surprisingly often (coming out to my mum left her baffled, more than anything).

    Glad to hear that you are mostly recovered, hope that the rest of it gets resolved soon.

  5. Impressive post.

    You should try reading a little Foucault I suggest Madness and Civilisation.

  6. TTRob - Yes, you're completely right, Foucault is good for this. I should revisit my books, I have a feeling I didn't read them properly the first was kinda freshers' week....

  7. An excellent post, which I shall be more than happy to include in this week's Britblog Roundup.
    In addition to the Foucault, I would also recommend Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady (one I am sure you are already familiar with, but what the heck!) to put psychiatric diagnoses in loner-term cultural perspective and Jane Ussher's Women's Madness: Misogyny or mental Illness?

  8. This is a pretty dark story. Having a few close friends that have gone through similar experiences it is great that you can share this with people.

    The number of people, both gay and straight, who don't "get" bisexuality is huge. There's something about it that loads of people are uncomfortable with. When you work out why let me know.

  9. Thank you Rob, Chameleon and Tasha. :)

    And T - I've often wondered about this, and for more of a lengthy wonderingment you might want to see my post on the subject,
    I think that bisexuality transcends a certain category value of 'normalised' non-heteronormativity that mainstream culture had just about started to accept into its worldview. Bisexuality, pansexuality, transsexualism and transgenderism threaten not only heterosexual norms, they threaten the whole concept of social organisation around gender binaries, and a lot of people find that very scary.

  10. i am the poor guy who maintaining the blog (i hope you find the pic from my blog)

    i started my personnel blog, are you able to add my blog into your favourite links.
    (something Nonsense)

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. A lot of the information in this post has been very useful. I can definitely agree there are great needs for having or developing organizational, writing, and marketing skills..
    Cheap Logo Design


Comments are open on this blog, but I reserve the right to delete any abusive or off-topic threads.