A Woman's Space

23 August 2017

Last night I hosted a dinner full of lively, fascinating and furious feminist debate. It was a glorious affair laden with barbecued brisket and coronary-beckoning mac and cheese. Tom and I split the cooking and washing up between us (not in honour of the event, although it was noted, but because it’s fucking 2017), while our friends talked about the difference between gender and sex, the dangers of patriarchal pseudo-science and how trans fits into it all. At the end of the evening, my friend recommended to me the Guilty Feminist podcast, so that’s what I’ve been listening to today.

I listened to an episode about food, about the idea of having a “relationship with food” that seems to almost exclusively apply to women. One of the hosts talked about going into Patisserie Valerie and ordering two cakes, and how the woman taking her order smiled at her. When asked why she seemed pleased, she said it was nice to see a woman confidently ordering cake, because the norm was to um and ah and do a guilty dance about it (even though they’d clearly walked into Patisserie Valerie for a reason)! Another woman pointed out that chocolates advertise themselves to women as a guilty pleasure akin to masturbating – like can you imagine the embarrassment if they should be caught enjoying a square of chocolate?

All this talk of food and guilt then reminded me of one of my favourite poetry slam videos.

I love the parallels that this poet draws between being physically small (because society tells you that’s attractive) and being small in presence, quiet in voice and silent in opinion (because society tells you that’s attractive). This poem resonates with me in a deep and uncomfortable place. Because, like the poet, I’m a slim woman. I like to think that I don’t have hang ups about food, but I do exercise a lot. And I tell myself it’s because it’s healthy to be fit, but I know that’s not nearly the whole reason. I also do it to stay thin, I do it because my mother would always tell me when I looked fat to her, like it was a failure, like nobody would want me. And isn’t that a woman’s first priority? To be wanted, to be liked?

This poem also makes me think about shrinking, about occupying a small tidy space that doesn’t infringe on let alone, god forbid, offend others. About how much I filter, and try to be as polite and mild as possible, even when complaining about something. About how I’m eager to placate and anxious to please, how I still want people that I don’t even like to like me. Isn’t that crazy? I think about how many times I’ll try to make a statement but it comes out like a question. Or how constantly unsure I am of my own abilities, and all the times I’ve deferred to the “better” judgement of men only to really think about it later and realise that what he suggested was stupid. The saddest part is that despite all these ways in which I feel small and uncertain, people consider me to be an outspoken, assertive, sometimes even aggressive woman. What does that say about the average expectation? Just how small a woman are we comfortable with?

But I want to end on a positive note. Having listened to the podcast and rewatched the poem, I think back to our dinner last night with all the more fondness. We were three women and one man, we all stuffed our faces, and we were loud and spirited, sharing our varied, colourful, unapologetic thoughts and opinions with trust and without shame. We unconformed and expanded, and it was wonderful. Now imagine if they made a chocolate ad like that.