It’s not about the burqa. It’s about coercion. Coercing a woman out of a burqa is as bad as coercing her into one.—Arundhati Roy
What can the female body do? What is it allowed to do? How is it defined, what is it expected to achieve, and how must it be presented while achieving these things? You cannot be a woman in 2016 and not face these questions, on some level. Even if you wanted absolute freedom from these questions, you’d be faced with rules, regulations and policing far too often to achieve such freedom.
On beaches in France, the latest rule is that the female body can exist, but it must not be covered up with a burkini (a portmanteau of burqa and bikini). A French court has just overturned the rule, but the question of how a woman’s body can present itself remains. Those who continue to defend the ban maintain that there is real danger in the burkini:
Mayors had previously cited a number of reasons for the bans. These included security after a string of terror attacks in the country and elsewhere in Europe; risk to public order; and France’s rules on secularism in public.
One fascinating aspect of this story is how “other” the ruling seemed, at first. Another country “over there,” policing what women wear! many feminist American women—myself included—likely thought, upon first hearing the story. It’s ridiculous and not something we’d stand for here.
Except here in America, girls are sent home from school every day for wearing “distracting” clothing. From our very forward-thinking and feminist America, it’s easy to be shocked by a South African school banning natural hairstyles, while forgetting that here in America, young black girls are also protesting administrations that won’t allow them to wear their natural hair, because it’s deemed a distraction. Years ago in a course on Islam, I remember learning about a Muslim woman who found it laughable that Western women saw the hijab as oppressive. American women are forced to wear veils too, she explained, describing one such veil as “the size six veil.” And isn’t it true, that part of our womanhood is defined by how our bodies look, and what size we wear? Isn’t it a problem in our culture too, when we do not fit into such veils? Just as France attempts to coerce women out of burkinis, aren’t our bodies subject to coercion of all sorts as well? Isn’t the question always, for some reason, what is the female body allowed to do, and how must it do these things?
Comedian and author Sara Benincasa answers all of these questions (and many, many more) in her brilliant response to an anonymous man’s question about why she gained “so much weight.” It’s an essay that must be in read in full, but one of the best parts is her description of all the things her body accomplished, without her weight becoming an issue.
I published that first book, “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom.” I adapted it as a TV pilot. Diablo Cody is the executive producer. Have you heard of her? She’s very talented. She won an Oscar for writing a movie about a GIRL. Isn’t that crazy? She’s written lots of other stuff, too, but honestly? It’s usually about girls? And I don’t get why people like it. But I guess there’s a market for stuff about strong women who don’t apologize for who they are LOLOLOLOL whatever.
Anyway, she wanted to work with me and never brought up the fact that I wasn’t skinny. Can you imagine? It’s so strange. I talked to her yesterday and she still did not say anything about me being so fucking fat. Is she just being nice? She’s from the Midwest and those people are sweet. And Ben Stiller’s company, Red Hour, worked with me too. None of them told me I was fat.Ben Stiller didn’t tell me I was fat! Was he busy thinking about other things? Maybe!
Benincasa’s writing reflects the hysterical weariness many women are experiencing, as a result of the constant policing of the female body. From Planned Parenthood clinics, to Hollywood, to Twitter, it’s clear there is no space where the female body is free from this policing, or free from critique. Women in the public eye, from Michelle Obama to Kim Kardashian, are accused of “asking for” the attention they receive (much of which is not mere attention, but misogynistic vitriol, complicated by racism, ageism and other such isms—see Leslie Jones). There is no winning in this game, as we should all know by now. And Benincasa’s essay shows how, although we might get more and more creative with our responses, there is nothing left to explain about the oppression of women through their physical appearance. Regardless of who you are, and what you’ve accomplished, the rooms you’ve sat in, and the books you’ve written, America will still want to know why you (you, who can’t don the size six veil) are so fat.
The importance of a writer like Benincasa cannot be overstated, and her message rang truer for me, after the premiere of Kanye West’s music video for “Fade.” The most compelling visual he’s released for The Life of Pablo, “Fade” stars singer, dancer and new mother Teyana Taylor in a Flashdance-inspired, Do the Right Thing Rosie Perez opening credits-esque music video-turned-workout-anthem-turned-soft-porn-turned-horror flick. In the approximately 73 times I’ve watched the video since its premiere during the MTV VMAs, I haven’t seen what so many others have seen—mainly #BodyGoals and all the reasons to go the gym. That’s partly because I don’t go to the gym, but it’s also because I’d just read Benincasa’s essay the day before the premiere and all I could see was another answer to the question, “What can the female body do, and how should it do it?” The answer in “Fade” was similar to Benincasa’s: whatever it wants, without concern for much else beyond the self. More than “the perfect body,” the thing I saw—especially in those moments when Taylor seemed so completely captivated by the beat and the music, so fierce and passionate about her every move, as if participating in some erotic praise dance to herself—was a free body.
Some will undoubtedly be offended by the visuals. It’s sexual, it’s hypersexual; Taylor does the crybaby in a thong—nothing should scream “inviting the male hetero gaze” quite like that shot. Like a Muslim woman choosing to cover with a burqa, burkini or hijab, Taylor’s decision to strip down and reveal so much of her physical self won’t sit well with many ideals about what a woman’s body should be and should do. The urge to cover her up might be as strong as the urge to force a woman to strip down on a beach—an urge we can align with the urge of an anonymous man to ask an author of five books, why she has gained weight. It’s the same urge the great Gabby Sidibe challenged two years ago, when she spoke about female reporters who always ask her where she gets her “confidence” from. It’s the same urge being torn apart in Jill Soloway’s I Love Dick pilot.
So I didn’t think “Body Goals” when I watched Taylor move so freely. I did think, while barely breathing, “Look at what a [woman’s] body can do.” And I also thought about how incredible it was to see Taylor transform from dancer, to athlete, to vixen, to lover, to lioness, to mother—erasing the boundaries between such labels as well. I thought about how her body both rejected and embraced (and then rejected again) our notions of feminine and masculine.
Imagine Teyana Taylor, Sara Benincasa and the unnamed Muslim woman we all saw in the burkini on the beach (or Sonia Ahmimou, or any of these young, Arab women speaking out in Elle) walk into a bar together: they’d all be subject to a gaze they didn’t ask for, and they’d all be stripped of a certain freedom to present themselves as themselves. That women in the nude, women with athletic bodies, women with non-size six bodies and women in veils are all considered threats—and that they are joined by women who can give birth and women who can’t or choose not to, and young girls in above-the-knee skirts, and young women wearing braids—that so many women and their very physical appearances pose such threats to society, should prove how very fragile these [male-dominated] societies truly are.
Imagine how much damage we could all do to these frightened, unwelcoming spaces, in pursuit, demand and celebration of absolute freedom for the female form, and all the many forms it inspires?
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.