A chart hung above the chalkboard in Mrs Brandie’s classroom, written in the patient, legible hand of a primary school teacher. Black marker on white card, two columns: name, weight – Anwyn Crawford, 34 kg.
I’ve forgotten the name of the lightest member of the class, but not her figure, the lowest weight on the chart: 18 kg, limbs like kindling. My maths, at age eight, was good enough to know that I was nearly double this. I knew enough to know that I was fat and she was thin, and I was utterly ashamed.
An overweight childhood gives the lie to any optimistic belief that children, particularly girls, live at any point outside of capitalism, beyond the strictures of a global body industry. Oh no. We learn young. Carefree, vanilla-scented innocence is a myth for selling bubble bath.
Nearly twenty years on, less than two years ago, I had chased my numbers down to 43 kg. Still heavier than the child I’d been, my right and left numbers frustratingly transposed. Weak, dizzy, bone-cold, without my period, downy hairs beginning to grow on my arms. To sit on a hard seat was painful, and the weight of a coat rubbed my collarbone raw. Fat, fat, fat.
I take the pathologies that develop within a culture, far from being anomalies or aberrations, to be characteristic expressions of that culture; to be, indeed, the crystallisation of much that is wrong with it … Anorexia appears less as the extreme expression of a character structure than as a remarkably over-determined symptom of some of the multifaceted and heterogeneous distresses of our age.
The anorectic body circulates as a highly visible and highly valuable pictogram within an image-saturated culture. Magazines, websites and newspapers document fluctuations in weight of female celebrities – dispensable, replaceable, a casual workforce at the call-centre of fame – with the obsessiveness of brokers tracking the movement of financial markets. As LED boards with their ribbons of share prices operate at an unearthly, obscene remove from the lived misery of capitalism, so the daily parade of voyeuristic photos tells us little of what it actually means to inhabit a body forever under scrutiny – the female body. Instead, these two visible iterations of a market economy are surrounded by a worshipful mystique, the great driving mystique of capital: the transformation of desire into object, of want into need. Women are taught to want the thinnest body possible. Ergo, we need the anorectic: a magic object embodying the very limits of hunger. Much like a financial crash, the anorectic is not understood as the inevitable product of capitalism’s destructive logic, but as a kind of self-corrective aberration built into the system. Economies founder, women starve. Passing acknowledgement is made of the damage. Everything goes on as before.
In 2005, writer Ariel Levy published Female Chauvinist Pigs, which traced the rise in the mainstream West of cosmetic surgery, lap dancing and related pornographic phenomena, and which popularised the phrase ‘raunch culture’. It was a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed work, limited in its analysis by the North American liberal feminism of its author – a feminism in which the women’s movement starts around 1976 in New York, combined with a liberalism that enshrines personal choice as the baseline of political emancipation.
Levy is best when characterising the double-bind of American – and many non-American – women and girls today, caught between the imperatives of a culture that demands sexual display and a social morality, particularly evident in the political class, that strongly disapproves of sexual experience: ‘Girls have to be hot. Girls who aren’t hot probably need breast implants. Once a girl is hot, she should be as close to naked as possible all the time. Guys should like it. Don’t have sex.’ The binary is a familiar one to Australians: on the one hand we have Tony Abbott championing female virginity as a ‘gift’, on the other Louis Nowra, in his despicable Monthly essay, describing Germaine Greer’s appearance as akin to a ‘demented grandmother’.
Levy negotiates difficult territory, poised between condemning sexual exploitation and defending sexual liberation. The North American feminist tradition that she inherits has been historically riven by contestations over pornography; the ghosts of Dworkin and MacKinnon sit at the table, waiting to be pointed out by ‘sex-positive’ feminists who accuse their ‘anti-porn’ sisters of moral puritanism and, even worse, collusion with the Right. Levy is extremely critical of the ‘glossy, overheated’ pornography of breast enlargements and bikini waxes – while giving a polite, eminently liberal acknowledgement to women who ‘feel their most sexual’ this way – but her mistake, I think, is to misidentify contemporary pornography with pornography per se, and to oppose it with a sense of sexual desire that arrives, somehow, natural and unmediated, no longer ‘divorced from the everyday experience of being ourselves’.
British philosopher and feminist Nina Power does a tremendous job in her recent book One Dimensional Woman of tracing the fault lines in this liberal argument against raunch culture, asking ‘What if the self-commodification of individuals is all-encompassing … What if there is no longer a gap between an internal realm of desires, wants and fantasies and the external presentation of oneself as a sexual being?’ To acknowledge the power of capitalism in shaping subjectivity – Levy’s ‘everyday experience’ of the self – to wonder if it even leaves us with a meaningful subjectivity to speak of is, Power writes, ‘a more useful starting point than to assume there is a real humanist reserve of nice sexual desire lying beneath all the images. If indeed there are moments of resistance, they might not be particularly pleasant.’
Anorexia, I would argue, is one of these resistance points. It is a deeply flawed one, not least because its form of resistance lies in acting out the logic of capitalism itself, which demands permanent toil in the purgatory between desire and satisfaction. The anorectic can never be thin enough, her desire for thinness always exceeds her own body, and yet the starvation of the anorectic manifests physically a deep and systemic psychic distress experienced by women: the distress of perpetual visibility.
In his book Capitalist Realism, cultural theorist Mark Fisher defines his title phrase as a society in which the power of capitalism to subsume all histories and artefacts leaves us with nothing left over to live within: ‘Capitalist realism is therefore not a particular type of realism, it is more like realism in itself.’ He does, however, draw from Žižek and Lacan the distinction between reality and the Real: ‘the Real is what any “reality” must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression … So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.’
Capitalism depends on the visibility of women as images in order to repress the Real of their invisibility – their non-existence – as subjects. The female prime minister whose instatement is heralded by a newspaper cover appropriated from the Redheads logo represents a high-value visibility, her individual power cancelling out the global deficit incurred by the political disenfranchisement and economic impoverishment of women.
There is also, as Nina Power describes, the visibility of the casual tertiary sector employee, who under neoliberalism must constantly sell herself – attributes, skills, grooming – in a market that demands unflagging enthusiasm and ‘flexibility’. Meanwhile, women working in de-unionised industries like cleaning, hospitality and manufacturing, not to mention the unpaid work of women in the home, together constitute the unglamorous, invisible ghost army of capitalism, on whom illusions of plenty depend.
Then there is the visibility of the otherwise dispensable woman in hijab – she has become highly contested ground in recent years. Is she conspicuous? Is she trying not to be? Is her veiling oppressive? Is it ‘a personal choice’? Power quotes Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou on the banning of hijab in French schools:
A single explanation: a girl must show what she’s got to sell. She’s got to show her goods. She’s got to indicate that, henceforth, the circulation of women abides by the generalized model, and not by restricted exchange … It is vital to hint at undressing at every instant. Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant.
Let’s argue the following, then, a pretty strange point: the law on hijab is a pure capitalist law. It orders femininity to be exposed. In other words, having the female body circulate according to the market paradigm is mandatory.
And what is the logic of mandatory exposure? That it must be on capitalism’s terms. To expose without selling is nearly as great an offence as to refuse exposure in the first place; therefore, if you wear a short skirt you must deal with the possible consequence of advertising your ‘availability’. Rape is a woman’s fault. The reality of sexual liberation under capitalism conceals the Real: this liberation is conditional, and must not be mistaken for autonomous agency.
The reality of life as image is just this – reality. The realm of abstraction has real effects: if the price of coffee drops three digits on the board, people suffer. But this is too reductive. It is more useful to say that the appearance of Fair Trade coffee within a world of images does not constitute a political solution to a poverty caused by market capitalism.
Anorexia is not ‘caused’ by images of underweight actresses and models, nor will it be eradicated by the inclusion of more ‘realistic’ female bodies in magazines and cinema. To argue on this terrain is still to accede to the logic of capital: that a woman must be an image in order to exist. The great challenge of contemporary feminism is not to demand appearance for capitalism’s sake, but to overturn capital’s dynamic of appearance: we must create the conditions for women’s invisibility from the realm of images in order to become visible as historical subjects.
It was once common to characterise the anorectic as a woman or girl unwilling to deal with the ‘consequences’ of adult sexuality, the underlying assumption being that the ‘consequences’ of the male gaze, sought or unsought, were an issue of female responsibility. Anorexia was immaturity, a refusal to grow up into this gaze by forced reversion to – or stalling at – the pre-pubescent body. But what if the refusal of sexuality – the disappearance of menses, the shrinking of secondary sex characteristics, the lowering of libido – is not an individual pathology manifested by women afraid of a healthy, ‘natural’ sexuality, but the symptom of a social pathology whereby the marketable signifiers of sexual attractiveness are synonymous with subjectivity – indeed, eclipse it? ‘MY BODY. MY BIOGRAPHY.’ declared the front window of an upmarket gym I walked past recently. ‘IT’S NOT FITNESS. IT’S LIFE.’ Note that the option of autobiography is not allowed: the body is an object to be read by others, and it will reveal the whole of you.
As Guy Debord once wrote, the truism of the society of the spectacle is that ‘Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear’. To exist means to appear and to circulate as an image. This is good; this is to be goods. Liberal feminism, the feminism of accommodation to capital, cannot escape from this logic. It confuses the circulation of images with the possession of actual power, the proliferation of consumables and one’s ability to choose between them with freedom, and the niche marketing of a hundred different lifestyles with the assertion of individual subjectivity. Any attack on this circumscribed consumer existence is anti-feminist, retrograde and dangerous: an attack on female existence itself. To which might be said: buy lipstick. There is no moral value inherent to buying or not buying it, no political position that can be ascribed to wearing or not wearing it. Shoes, pornography, promiscuity, celibacy, vibrators, yoga, handbags – none of these things carry implicit moral or political value, though capitalism does a fine job of selling them to us on the basis that they do.
‘It has been to feminism’s great loss that the socialist tradition continues to dominate its discourses and discourage the child and men-loving shopper section of human kind from getting behind it,’ said Pru Goward, former executive director of the Office of the Status of Women, in March this year. Au contraire, Pru: the recuperation of feminism as a non-stop shopping trip – ‘Because you deserve it’ – represents one of late capitalism’s great triumphs. The loss of feminism, and the tragedy of that loss, is something altogether different.
Purchase power is a kind of power, certainly. As some would tell it, buying stuff can halt terrorism, reverse economic slumps and advance political freedom. But it is a rigged transaction, in which complex and unrealised hopes for another kind of liberation are exchanged for an object that, so the sales patter goes, performs the act of liberation without us ever having to leave our seats.
Nina Power’s most deft move in One Dimensional Woman is to avoid the simplistic moral binary that has characterised the feminist porn debate – ‘pornography is either degrading therefore bad or it is enjoyable and thus morally good,’ she summarises – by instead historicising pornography as a practice. She traces the shifts in pornography from the anti-monarchical, anti-clerical pamphlets of the French Revolution, which situate sex within a matrix of social relations, to contemporary hardcore videos in which sex is almost purely an economic transaction. This, Power argues, is no accident. The pornography of our time – taxonomical, competitive, unwilling to waste frames on any act that does not lead to ‘the money shot’ – is a highly profitable way of reminding us ‘that everything is merely a form of work, including, or even most especially, pleasure’.
It is worth comparing this porn-as-work dynamic to the historical shifts over another key feminist issue: birth control. In her new book Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century, feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham recovers the radical origins of feminist demands for birth control, pointing to the origin of the phrase itself, introduced by working-class New York feminist Margaret Sanger:
Influenced by the anarcho-syndicalist group Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), in 1914 Sanger started her own revolutionary magazine Woman Rebel, which proclaimed sexual liberation along with the total transformation of society. In the June issue Sanger introduced the term ‘birth control’ as a counterpart to the IWW’s slogan ‘worker’s control’. Arraigned under the Comstock Law for the contents of the magazine, Sanger defiantly produced the pamphlet Family Limitation which gave instructions on contraception and birth control methods and, that October, before her trial, she fled to Europe. Feminists, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists and anarchists, including Mary Ware Dennett, Kate Richards O’Hare, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Emma Goldman rallied to Sanger’s support.
In 1922, British feminist Stella Browne wrote: ‘Birth control for women is no less essential than workshop control and determination of the conditions of labour for men … Birth control is woman’s crucial effort at self-determination’. In the newly formed Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollontai agitated along the same lines.
Of course, no self-respecting single gal sashaying through the fantasy metropolis of Sex and the City would be without contraception today, but the popular narrative of birth control as an iconic product of the 1960s, up there with shift dresses and the Rolling Stones, only serves to reinforce the idea of capital’s generously ‘permissive hedonism’, to use Mark Fisher’s phrase. Late capitalism places the pursuit of pleasure and the imperative to ‘enjoy’ at the centre of being; what capitalism extracts from sex is a potential for pleasure, which can be turned profitably to a ceaseless, competitive labour. The humourlessness of contemporary pornography shows how serious this competition is, and there is no ‘Real of sex’ that can be cordoned off from it. Work-for-consumption and consumption-as-work construct bodies, dreams, fantasies and behaviours.
Early feminist campaigns in favour of birth control turned upon the (re)production of labour, and in many ways the argument has not changed: women’s work raising children (and socialising them as future employees) still goes unrecognised and unpaid, bar token government bonuses, and if a woman can control the number of hours she has to spend mothering, she might have time left for over herself. ‘The fewer children she had to cook, wash and toil for, the more leisure she would have to read, think and develop,’ wrote Margaret Sanger. The problem is that this leisure time, which Sanger imagined as an opportunity to cultivate an interior self, has been turned, under capitalism, into the toil of leisure as self-improvement for capital’s benefit, the self remade into the ultimate commodity of You, ready at a moment’s notice to perform for the camera. The porn star finds her corollary in the anorectic and also in the obese woman: each body enacts a lived-in logic of consumption, but none can ever outperform capital’s own production of desire: for more food, for less food, for larger breasts, for a smaller stomach, for the body transformed anew at each turn in the trend, no longer inhabited but simply and purely responsive to demand.
A passing observation in Dreamers of a New Day serves as a reminder that the complicated relationship between modern feminism and image, image and capitalism, got under way long ago. Discussing British suffragettes, Rowbotham notes that ‘Appropriating conventional forms of femininity offset unconventional political action and confused male opponents. Ironically this resulted in suffrage shoppers being targeted by the new large department stores – despite the broken windows’. A young woman today might smash in a Starbucks (though it’s really more likely to be a young man with a certain picture of militant, machismo adventurism in his head), but Starbucks are all too happy to sell you coffee on the basis of a fantasy urban bohemia and a fuzzy notion of the global sisterhood of equally hip Starbucks customers. Recuperation is an old story.
There are many different feminisms, and class status, racial background, geographic location, gender orientation, politics, predilections and whims all play a part in the kind of feminist one may become. As a white woman born in 1981, raised by a single mother on the outer-western fringe of Sydney’s lower-middle-class suburbia, with a noted enthusiasm for pop music from a young age, it’s not entirely surprising that the formative years of my adolescence in the 1990s were shaped by riot-grrrl, the feminist punk movement that sprang from the north-west United States and went on, via a pre-internet network of zines, letters and 7-inch singles, to conquer the hearts and minds of many teenage girls/grrrls across the richer nations of the world.
Riot-grrrl, as with other strains of third-wave feminism, made the body central to its interrogations and provocations. It was a movement with a sophisticated understanding of capitalism’s power to create ideology through image. Many riot-grrrl zines looked back to early punk strategies of visual appropriation and détournement – strategies inherited by 1970s punk in turn from the Situationist International through Sex Pistols’ sleeve designer Jamie Reid, who was involved with early English translations of Situationist texts – and these zines spilled over with cut-n-paste advertisements reconstructed in order to speak, baldly, the ideological truths that went otherwise unsaid. Across these pages, the Real broke forth from capitalism’s reality stranglehold. It was a Real of mental and physical trauma – of rape, abuse, eating disorders, suicide attempts – but the great thrill of riot-grrrl was the way in which it transformed incandescent rage into a reckless, confrontational joy. The détournement extended to the body itself, with riot-grrrl performers taking to the stage with words like ‘SLUT’ and ‘UGLY’ written across their foreheads or stomachs. Such gestures took the internalised surveillance of the male gaze and its endless amplification through capital, externalised it and demystified its power.
Riot-grrrl was an antagonistic feminism, and one of the last movements in contemporary popular culture to maintain a genuinely antagonistic relationship to capital. Its partial recuperation by capitalism, an agonising experience for many participants, was part of the great ‘Nirvana wars’ (as I like to term them) of the early 1990s, whereby the independent music scene that had flourished throughout the 1980s in the wake of punk was transformed into the substantially profitable ‘Alternative’ racks at the HMV mega-store. Nirvana, a Seattle-based band, had come of age among their riot-grrrl peers in the Pacific northwest: Kurt Cobain was a vocal feminist sympathiser and former boyfriend of Tobi Vail, drummer for key riot-grrrl band Bikini Kill. Late one night, Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna spray-painted the words ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ across Cobain’s apartment wall in reference to a cheap brand of deodorant. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a song that not only changed the sound of popular music but transformed the entire music industry, and the passage of these words from impulsive, tongue-in-cheek gesture among friends to the title of a global hit, which nonetheless gave voice to the alienation of teenage life, symbolises, rather perfectly, the dynamic of the era. As Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, ‘Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché.’
‘But’, Fisher continues, ‘the high existential angst of Nirvana and Cobain belongs to an older moment’ – to a moment in which the tiny space left between caustic irony and benumbed exhaustion, subjectivity and pure appearance, shrank away to nothing. It was the final, panicked scream with the walls closing in.
There’s a way in which the concomitant recuperation of riot-grrrl could be said to have inaugurated the ‘raunch culture’ that Ariel Levy writes of in Female Chauvinist Pigs. The confrontational grrrl became the Spice Girls, became Girl Power, became a re-infantilisation of women as perpetual teenagers, living in the endless now of consumer gratification. ‘SLUT’ scrawled across the body in marker as a defiant reclamation of insult became ‘PORN STAR’ picked out in diamantes on a pink T-shirt, declaring one’s fitness for employment in the world’s most profitable media industry. ‘This is happening without your permission,’ sang British riot-grrrl band Huggy Bear on ‘Her Jazz’: the ‘your’ addressed in the song’s lyric was not just men – particularly the male musicians and critics quick to dismiss riot-grrrl as an incoherent, amateurish mess – but the decentralised, omniscient gaze of the spectacle itself. Capital, however, need not bother with granting or asking permission. It can simply grant permissiveness: the imprecation to pleasure within its own boundaries.
I want to close my eyes/ I want to cut the wires/ I want a day not made for you to see
As I stared, day after day, at the number written next to my name on the chart in my second-grade classroom, willing it to be smaller, wishing that I could disappear and not to have to deal with the shame of being so horribly, grotesquely fat, I felt more than oversized: I felt room-sized, world-sized, an ever-expanding blob of fleshy muck, taking up far more space than I was entitled to. I have never stopped feeling this way.
It never occurred to me that a woman would be anything other than a feminist. I don’t remember a moment when I decided that I was one, but knew the word and what it meant before I got to high school. By the time I reached university, it genuinely puzzled me that some women spoke of feminism as if, before discovering the term, they had believed themselves to be free subjects. My mother and grandmother both went through tertiary education as mature-age students and it is their lives that made me a feminist. I believe that feminism lives and dies in the school, the university, the workplace, the hospital, the childcare centre – all those places that, despite being increasingly privatised and mismanaged by a nightmarish neoliberal bureaucracy, I still dream can one day be collectivised and run for a common benefit in the cause of women’s liberation. The legacy of radical feminism is of great personal importance to me – I’ve spent some time as one of those ‘hairy-legged feminists’ who appear, like the Abominable Snowman, in the darkness on the edge of town, giving Miranda Devine bad dreams. I also believe passionately in the wit and intelligence and emotion and formal inventiveness of popular culture, and I’d be the first to argue that the relationship between cultural product and consumer is a two-way street. The realm of images is not monolithic in its meaning; capitalism does not work on the propaganda model. But I want to ask why so many of us have let ourselves believe that capitalism can only be read against itself through what it produces, always and forever, as if this street was in fact a canvas backdrop being pulled, without ceasing, through the same loop of scenery.
Feminism, as I have discovered rather painfully over the years, is not a prophylactic against patriarchy or against capitalism. It is possible to know, intellectually, that starvation is a viciously self-destructive tactic while still actually starving; the self-destruction is in part an inability to inhabit a self – a body – that capitalism has constructed. Good feminists don’t starve, I used to think sometimes, before remembering that none of this has anything at all to do with morals, and everything to do with hope – the hope for a genuine autonomy of women’s experience and imagination, the dream of a new day on which capitalism has at last closed its eyes, because we have made it so.