Posted by Tanvee Nandan
As I am reading about the Instagram groups ‘bois locker room’ and reading the surrounding debates on it, I notice how many women around me pinpoint slutshaming and objectification they faced in school as early indicators of how perverse and problematic sexuality has become. They pinpoint hearing themselves referred to by epithets like ‘slut’, ‘randi’; they remember seeing drawings of themselves with caricatured body parts doing the rounds in classrooms. They remember (and this hurts the teacher in me the most) being targeted by their teachers for having male friends, for having fledgling romantic relationships, for being ‘unladylike’.
It always strikes me that stories women write about gender politics almost always contain humiliating personal anecdotes. I am amazed at all women who are willing to put their embarrassment out there for everyone to read so that someone else will read it and feel understood. I suppose it is also a way to regain ownership over our experiences: good, bad or ugly; and that is commendable too. I read all of this and none of it has happened to me. The epithets I hear when I close my eyes and remember being a student are of an entirely different nature.
I’m fat, so I hesitate to enter this conversation about perverse sexuality and the underbelly of adolescent desire. What was done to me in school and college was perhaps the opposite of what most of these stories represent. No one ever caricatured my body to some hyper-sexual version of it, no one ever described me or my behaviour in sexual ways. I’m fat, so I was the anti-sexual.
If women’s bodies are the location of overtly sexual harassment from a young age, then my fat body was the location of overtly desexualized harassment. When I was 13 and sitting in a class assembly, some students threw branches and leaves behind me and laughed to each other that elephants probably excrete greenery because they eat leaves and branches. Not a particularly clever demonstration, nor perhaps anywhere comparable to what most young women undergo, but nevertheless, it was harassment targeted at my body, and I was subjected to it because I was a woman.
One of the things that would strike me as most unfair in school, was that boys who were fat like me did not have to face the same kind of harassment that I did. Certainly, they did not have an easy time of it. Many, I am sure, are traumatized by the taunts and mockery. But the comments I received were almost entirely targeted at my lack of sexual appeal in a way that made it obvious that a woman’s primary purpose, her aim, is to be sexually attractive, and by not being so, I was failing at something crucial.
As I went through school, men did yell epithets at me, but they were more on the lines of ‘fatass’ than ‘slut’ and at 15, that difference was deliberate too.
The problem with the ‘bois locker room’ and other similar WhatsApp groups which objectify and demean women is that they are a function of entitlement that our patriarchal society has granted to men. Men are the owners of our sexualities, and so they are entitled to comment on it. If a young woman chooses to express her sexuality, she is labeled ‘slut’. If she chooses to hide her sexuality, she is labeled ‘prude’.
Both of these are arising from the same space of entitlement – that men feel they have the right to demand women’s sexuality should be for their pleasure and on their command. Much of the reason groups like these exist, is because men want a space where women’s sexuality is only for their pleasure and at their command. They want to strip women of their choice and by sharing our photos and commenting on our bodies in the perceived privacy of these groups, men are doing just that.
So when I think about my experiences in school, I know that they are the flipside of the same coin. Men felt entitled to determine who was sexual and who was not, and my body was emphatically not. The fact that I am as traumatized by their comments 15 years later is proof that it worked. Just like every other woman who has moved past but not forgotten the trauma of these comments, this harassment; I have not forgotten either.
Another time, I heard rumours that I had a sex tape. The person who was telling me (warning me, actually) mentioned that these rumours aren’t really believed, but it was just funny to the boys to think of how disgusting it would look if I did have a sex tape. Once again, my fatness eclipsed my womanhood.
For as long as I can remember, my body has been the site of desexualisation. But even this desexualisation taught me the same lesson as it has millions of other women: that our bodies exist in patriarchy as objects where men can impose their desires. By sexualizing another woman and calling her ‘slut’ and desexualizing me and calling me disgusting, men are relying on the same sense of entitlement. They believe they have the right to decide which bodies are desirable. They believe they have the right to decide what women should do with these desirable or undesirable bodies.
Reading the accounts of women who have grappled with their sexuality for years because of these comments and epithets, I was grateful initially that I had not had this experience. But as I kept thinking about it, I realized that I have grappled with my sexuality for as many years, and that the root of this struggle is comments on my body, just of a very different nature.
The fact that men have felt, for decades, comfortable with commenting on women’s bodies and targeting women who don’t fit into their expectations can be linked, in my opinion, to three underlying causes,
First, that our family structure privileges masculinity and places boys and their lives on pedestals in comparison to women. Second, that social media, in particular groups where members share forwards and jokes about women lay the groundwork for men to believe that they can say whatever they want about women. Third, and finally, that the ‘bro-code’ amongst male friends is predicated on the idea that women should not be allowed to ruin the sanctity of male relationships and fixes the idea that there should be men-only spaces and these spaces should not have to consider women.
To come to the first of these causes: much is being written about the ways in which our family structures, in which boys are always encouraged to be more where girls are often reprimanded to be less (less loud, less confrontational, less aggressive) cause this entitlement and lead to formation of groups like ‘bois locker room’. I cannot count the number of times that I have seen friends and family members ask a girl to do something around the house even if she is busy, but not ask a boy to do it. So many times I have heard ‘men should not have to go to the kitchen/ men do not go into the kitchen’. So many times I have heard men being complimented to the sky and beyond for ‘helping their wives at home’. So many women have just internalized that they must serve everyone at the table and eat at the end.
From this family structure emerge our family groups on social media. These groups teach boys and girls about the acceptability of humour targeted at the shrewish nature of wives (insert joke). This sets the foundation for young men who think they have a right to talk about women (and frankly to women) any which way they choose. Every family WhatsApp group I have ever encountered has innumerable jokes of this nature. I have fought with my family a hundred times about the atmosphere created by these jokes and been told that I lack a sense of humour.
‘Can’t you take a joke?’ they ask me. Apparently, I can’t.
And finally, there is the toxic aspect of ‘bro-code’ where it is unheard of for men to hold other men accountable for the things they say on these groups. There is no limitation to what can be said on these ‘boys only’ WhatsApp groups and no boys on that group, including the self-proclaimed feminists, put a stop to such conversations. Men who are parts of such group chats passively, feel no shame in avowing themselves to be feminists or allies. They think that their non-participation makes it irrelevant that they are doing nothing to stop their friends from objectifying or denigrating women.
Male friendship is privileged over female friendship through popular culture. Women, apparently because we are bitchy drama queens, don’t know how to make friends as meaningfully as men. Men do genuinely believe they have the monopoly on profound friendships. Even these so-called feminists or allies allow their male friends to get away with saying palpably misogynistic tripe in the name of the bro-code and the supposed inviolability of their private groups. I wonder if there was some boy, on this ‘bois locker room’, who even if he could make no difference, objected to what was going on.
My argument is not that all fatshaming is sexual harassment. There is a lot of fatshaming, done by family members, friends and strangers on the road, which has nothing to do with sexuality in any obvious way, but it sets the foundation for considering fat people as less entitled to dignity and consideration. Every conversation in which we are allowed to associate fat with bad, lazy, slothful, unhealthy or just undesirable, forms a link in the chain that eventually leads to the treatment of fat people as less than.
My argument is that fatshaming is one of the last remaining ‘acceptable’ ways to demean someone without raising eyebrows. Because it is so widely acceptable, it is often invisible in conversations about how it occurs in the context of female sexuality as a way to harass women by desexualizing them. A fat woman is treated as ‘less than’ and this treatment is accepted by everyone.
My argument is that this includes being treated as less than a woman because a fat body fails to do the one thing women are supposed to do: be attractive to men. So when we talk about ‘bois locker room’ and the need for a radical shift in the ways we consider sexuality, perhaps the experience of desexualisation a fat person faces is also relevant.
Tanvee is a teacher by day, romance-reader by evening, (ordinary) sleeper by night. You can find her on Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Bustle