OPINION: How to be a woman
_"Right. I look fine. Except I don't," said Zora, tugging sadly at her man's nightshirt. This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn't be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman's magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki's knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies - it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it." - _Zadie Smith, On Beauty
"I'm not that girl." This was part of Pulane Lenkoe's response to the commotion that surrounded leaked nude photographs of her being circulated on the internet. Many women live life in the shadow of being called that girl, as it follows in the wake of our footsteps - waiting for that unavoidable misstep. A whisper as you walk past. A shout across a crowded street. An instruction, given by a matriarchal figure, telling you to pull down your skirt, sit up straight, cross your legs and avoid anything that might vaguely hint at the sexual. Be respectable. Be the right kind of girl. Avoid, at all costs, being labelled 'that girl'.
'That girl' has many faces: women who are called a 'thot' (a ridiculous term that is shorthand for 'that ho over there', or whatever word is the new culturally en-vogue synonym for 'slut') and shamed for a variety of reasons that seek to dictate and define the small space that women are allowed to move in, occupy and be. It could happen because you wore a short skirt, have tattoos, dare to speak your mind, or have the incredibly invasive, criminal and terrifying experience of having nude photographs of you leaked by an ex through 'revenge porn', or by someone who hacks your computer. The madonna-whore dichotomy remains a central feature of life as a woman.
There is no escaping it, as Zadie Smith identifies in her remarkable book On Beauty, and any 'precautionary measures' you take make 'no difference'. The messages are delivered through multiple mediums, they seep into everything. We bring them home, breathe them off our newspapers, magazines and television screens, and often exhale them into our words, thoughts and actions. It is an almost imperceptible transference that we are all often guilty of making. These messages are inscribed on our bodies, written on our minds, and codified in our silent constitutions.
I keep returning to this passage of On Beauty because it so poetically illustrates the kind of experience of being a woman that resonates so deeply. 'This hatred of women and their bodies' that invades our personal and private spaces, so unavoidably permeating and puncturing our experiences.
The recent leaking of Pulane Lenkoe's nude pictures (see Roxane Gay's excellent piece on why this phenomenon will continue to occur) have brought many issues about women's bodies to the fore. These instances of revenge porn, as with rape and other acts of violence, continually turn on the victim: using arguments that she should have never taken/sent them, amidst slut shaming, body commentary and the same kind of narratives that constantly recur whenever women's bodies are at the centre of discussion. They chorus: she is solely responsible for being 'that girl'.
Many of the responses to these issues are trained on one particular aspect: teaching women how to be the right kind of woman. How not to be 'that girl'. This involves many mediums instructing women as to what they did to land themselves in this place, and how they can avoid it, and teaching them how they should behave. It is a dangerous and pervasive policing of body and behaviour under what is deemed 'respectable', 'acceptable' and 'good'.
These ideas preach the unwritten rules of our society, expressing the ways of being that are codified in our everyday acts and validated in many ways. Whether it's the 'cool girl' archetype of Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl or the 'good girl/good wife' narrative that many women are familiar with, women are constantly instructed about the right way to be. The often controlling, confusing, contradictory messages are spread over every kind of platform that appear to always reflect the mantra: 'Above all things, be beautiful. And respectable'. It's a loaded message.
These ideas don't affect women alone, as they also lock men in an idea of what it means to be 'masculine' and be 'a real man', that demands an idea of masculinity that is devoid of anything that hints at femininity or vulnerability. What this does is not allow us to express the full breadth of being, and be our messy, complicated human selves that don't fit into neat categories and clean-cut dichotomies. It also keeps women doing a dizzying dance with misogyny, trying to avoid its road full of potholes, and constant threat of danger. This sometimes manifests as an internalised war with our bodies, choices, decisions, ideas and thoughts, and a complex conversation about how much agency we have in this patriarchal system, and the nature of that agency.
This incident has also shown how messy misogyny is. On the one hand, people have applauded Lenkoe for having an acceptable, 'good' body and being 'hot', and on the other hand, virulent slut-shaming occurs. It's a heady cocktail that reveals how aesthetics are always at play whenever women appear.
Similarly, when a woman, who some named ' Braveheart' stripped naked at Nelson Mandela Square, the conversation, centred on her body. However, what monopolised the conversation was comments about the nature of her body, and how its perceived 'imperfection' that 'did not permit' her to be naked in public. It repeats the idea that women's bodies are for others, and not themselves. Nova Masango's piece about her experiences of being a black, tattooed women reveal how this punctuates everyday encounters.
There are constant reminders that society demands a particular kind of womanhood. The issues of agency within this are more complicated than simply owning our bodies, because this does not happen in a vacuum. Women own their bodies in a system that attempts to not permit them this ownership. The male gaze is everywhere. Body policing rips through everything. "It is in the air, or so it seems". As bell hooks argues, in a critique of how agency operates in a patriarchal society: "there is still a culture outside you that will impose many, many values on you whether you want them to or not". This agency happens inside a system, which complicates it.
We maintain an ongoing personal and public conversation about how to navigate this while being our full selves, fight to own our bodies and arrive at an open, wide and textured definition of womenhood in the world we live in. It demands a radical, self-reflexive, critical and intersectional feminism. Because no women should have to walk around, haunted by the shadows and the whispers of being called 'that girl'.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler