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Women's Bodies

"Orchards in the Arctic: Women Who Love Men"
By Kay Leigh Hagan
From Ms. magazine, November/December 1991

Background on the context in which this essay was written.

Date Reading Was Discussed: January 12, 1992
Present: Kalisa, Colleen M., Catherine C., Cathleen M., and Robin Z.

For the heterosexual, bisexual and lesbian women present at this session, Kay Hagan's essays were the catalyst for a deeply personal discussion on what it means to be female in a patriarchal culture. Hagan asks, "Can a woman ever trust a man?" We basically agreed with her response that a "woman can trust a man to be a man," i.e., men are socialized to be male supremacists. Our conversation did not particularly center on attitudes of overt sexist behavior, nor were we preoccupied with physical sex.

Rather, in exploring the extent to which women can trust men, we examined sophisticated and subtle sexism. One woman gave the example of men who struggle (rightfully) for self-change and redefinitions of masculinity, but who remain disengaged from feminist activism. Other woman resented men who talk a good pro-feminist line, but haven't learned to shake the "male gaze" (i.e., the scrutiny of women's bodies as if it were a proprietary right, a habit many such men subtly or unconsciously still pursue).

Mention of the male gaze pushed that old feminist button: the struggle around our bodies and our looks. One woman declared that cosmetics exist completely for men's benefit, and that every part of a woman's body—from our fingernails to our earlobes—is colonized for the male gaze.

Another woman felt that it is too reductionist to imply that all artifices of beauty are fashioned specifically for male pleasure. She believed that the cosmeticized appearance expected of women is a societal norm—compulsory cosmetics, if you will—and that such an affectation is independent of whether or not any man's attention is actually targeted. The first woman countered that this unspoken mandate for women to look a certain way ultimately does benefit men because what is society anyway if not the culture of patriarchy?

Even more than shunning make-up, women felt that (in the U.S. at least) hair on our legs, under our arms, and on our face indisputably affronts the narrow boundaries of patriarchally-constructed muliebrity. Only one of us could recall an instance in which the mainstream media has featured a woman with body hair (Susan Sarandon in White Palace).

Not shaving can be a way of "outing" oneself oppositionally to the patriarchy, an unambiguous act of noncompliance with Barbie doll-ism. One woman said that letting her body hair grow empowers her because it allows her to set her own body parameters. She lamented, however, that her body hair is always an issue, and so sometimes she chooses to "veil" her legs. She also expressed discomfort with those who pressure her not to shave.

Another woman, in solidarity with the risks taken by women in other cultures (ex., refusing to veil their faces or resisting a clitoridectomy), described her decision not to shave as an explicit political act. She sensed that people probably mistake her as a member of the Birkenstock set (which is OK), but in fact, her other motive not to shave is so that she can more fully experience herself as a female human animal.

The dominant culture's artificial construction of femaleness is a simulation, a contrived lie. By not wearing makeup, and especially by growing out her natural hair, this woman feels better equipped as an ecofeminist to probe the deeper complexities of species Truth. She was profoundly affected by the sight of a full growth of hair on her body, grown for the first time in her adult life.

Hagan also asks: "Are men educable?" "Is separatism the only solution?" Women seemed to feel that yes, men can change, and part of that process is taking place as men strive to redefine masculinity. Women added that men belong in a post-patriarchal vision of society. For now, however, some women felt that until changes in men's behavior are forthcoming, the survival of women and women's culture depends on creating varying degrees of separate safe space. As Hagan writes:

"Relief from constant exposure to men and male needs is necessary for a woman to perceive the depth of her innate female power, which she is conditioned under male supremacy to ignore, deny, destroy, or sacrifice. Time spent alone and in consciously-constructed woman-only space allows a woman to explore aspects of herself that cannot surface in the company of men."

Prompted by Hagan, we asked ourselves how regularly are we "logging time in women-only space." Most of us confessed that EVE gatherings are our primary—if not sole—opportunities to spend quality time exclusively in the company of women.

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