Productive Bodies: Human Worth in the Era of Capitalism

The alarm on my phone rings. 5am. I feel the heaviness in my chest, aching and tender. No mind, I start my early morning ritual of mentally coaxing myself out of bed. And so it goes. “You just need to open one eye. That’s all there is to do, in this moment, right now. Just one eye, and then we can deal with the next moment.” I open one eye, and the second opens automatically with the first. mental-illness-self-portrait-shot-on-black-and-white-filmWhat I see has me cowering back into unconsciousness. My room, my reality… The children need me today. “No… I cannot get through this day”, the heaviness and pain in my chest is overwhelming. I allow myself some moments to breathe, and to believe that if I wanted to, I could stay here today – safe in this warmth, this warmth. I start sliding back into sleep. “No. You are going to school.” I protest inwardly “I’m not needed there…”. But the voice gets firmer, “You are going to school. You have a relationship with these children, a connection that is important to both of you. They feel safe with you. Besides, the teachers need you, and you need to complete your training.” But the argument isn’t compelling enough. “Why live with this pain…” I struggle for some time, desperately grasping at something, anything that will give me the courage I need to face this day. And then, “If you don’t do something today, you will have failed.” My attention peaks. “If you don’t go to school today you will be unprofessional, unreliable. Worthless. As if they want you there anyway. You are not valuable to them. Prove yourself.” This voice I can’t ignore. I inwardly breathe a sigh of relief. We’re getting somewhere! I look at the time – it’s 5:30am. “Ok, good. We haven’t gone over today. Now all you need to do is sit up. You can sit up. You’ll be able to take the warmth with you – put your blue blanket over your shoulders…” I sit up, “that’s right. Well done…” I feel relieved, emotional, grateful. I can do it! I can do this day.

Thankfully these periods do not last – and though they take all my inner strength to get through, they are not debilitating. I am also blessed with the support I need to heal – and, crucially, I can work. Many in the UK struggle with mental health and are able to lead economically ‘productive’ lives – but many more coming from a range of situations need financial support. Indeed 5.1 million ‘working age’ individuals were benefit claimants in August 2014, yet the government has cut close to £20 billion from projected welfare spending in the last five years and Conservatives are considering plans to cut a further £12 billion by 2018 in order to reduce the nation’s economic deficit. Let’s be under no illusions: according to the parties who would slash these benefits, those who do not contribute productively to society are a burden. This stance is reinforced by a media and political narrative which is vicious and punishing; those on benefits are chided and threatened lest they fail to declare all their earnings. And yet, corporations such as Google, Facebook, Starbucks and Amazon reportedly paid a meager £30million in taxes over the last four years despite UK sales of more than £3.1bn. What justice is this?

A paradigm that would have us stigmatised and divided is a paradigm to be unpacked. When we are left having to justify why we are worthy of security and abundance, we have bought the lie that our lives are not inherently valuable. And why is that? If money buys our basic human needs, anigif_enhanced-8515-1405714237-23money buys life. One must earn a living, and the right to live fulfilled. Food banks, depression, addiction, homelessness, starvation, economic slavery, suffering, stigmatisation, discrimination, criminalisation, shame, poverty, exhaustion, oppression, abuse and death are all possible fates for those of us unable to comply by this model. A dear friend and brilliant writer spells it out in her post The Human Cost of Demonisation: “I find I have internalised the slurs; there’s an insidious little Voice of the Daily Mail in my head, chastising me if I am up later than 8am, constantly sneering how worthless and parasitic I am.” And so, she must prove herself worthy.

These people are classed as unproductive, but what exactly are ‘unproductive bodies’? Unproductive bodies are seen to have no ‘economic value’. They are seen to contribute little or nothing to GDP, and to take from or even be a burden on the nation’s purse. They are often lumped into abject categories: addicts, benefit claimants, the disabled, the elderly, the homeless, travellers, ‘criminals’, ‘immigrants’, those seen to be overweight, those suffering from mental health issues, childbearing and menstruating women… Categories that are, amongst others, the most guilty of ‘unproductivity’. Unproductive bodies often share various characteristics: they are lazy, hysterical, undisciplined, scrounging, dirty, weak, difficult, burdensome, dangerous, psychotic or in some way defective. They need to be kept away in prisons, hospitals, detention centers, and undermined by stigma to remind us all of our place: if we fail as economically productive members of society, we fall from grace. And we fall hard.

Productive bodies, on the other hand, contribute to GDP and are therefore economically viable and American_Dream_Just_add_moneyvaluable. These bodies are declared successful, worthy and glorified in cultural myths such as the American Dream or the UK’s austerity-backed Big Society – the productive body is your shining ticket to personal financial security, fulfilment and happiness. If we look deeper at what the logic of the productive body implies, however, we uncover the more horrifying trends of political thinking from the turn of the 20th century. Eugenicist Margaret Sanger wrote in 1922: “… the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” The judgement of individuals as defective is a judgement of human life as less than, as unworthy, and ultimately becomes a question of life and death.

Examples of this can be found bursting forth from behind the veil of rhetoric and political propaganda. The wider reaches of our thinking about productive bodies are serious, murderous and entirely real. Hundreds if not thousands of vulnerable people have died being declared fit for work by Atos’s Work Capability Assessments after they were introduced in 2008; documented accounts explain individuals starving to death when their benefits were removed. Others committed suicide when faced with the stress of being officially declared ‘fit for work’, despite suffering from severe and debilitating mental health issues. Still more died of health related issueschartoftheday_3413_migrant_deaths_are_soaring_in_the_mediterranean_n after being forced back into the workplace despite not being well enough to handle the pressure. Last year 3,500 more vulnerable people died in the Mediterranean seeking asylum from conflict & repression in the Middle East and Africa. This year the figure has already risen to 1,600, but Britain’s response has been to refuse committing to Operation Triton’s rescue operations. Why? A score of unexamined judgements about the worthiness of human life has laid the foundations for the policies of a Europe at war with people. These judgements hail the productive body as a body qualified to enter our borders – the body of the Other, if unable to fit the needs of the British or European workplace, becomes a ‘problem’ as dehumanised as our economy. The life of the refugee is buried under a debate that has lost sight of the sacredness of human life.

The examples don’t stop there. Women are still being discriminated against for not being economically productive during pregnancy, childbirth and childcare. The elderly suffer heavily from inadequate funding due to austerity, with 40% cuts to local councils leaving “hundreds of thousands struggling with basic tasks”. I could go on. Perhaps it is time to begin constructing a new paradigm. Perhaps it is time we perceived the body for what it truly is – life itself; to be honoured, to be respected, to be deeply understood. These themes are worth the kind of real and in depth exploration that goes far beyond the scope of a blog article… And demands a deep and serious commitment to human life.

As I lay in bed with menstrual cramps having called in sick last minute – again – I can’t help but worry. What does my manager think? Are they writing me off as unprofessional? Will this affect my recommendation? I am made to feel guilty for honouring the needs of my temporarily unproductive body. I am angry that my stillness could have negative consequences for myself and my future, and I cannot relax for the stress. But thank God, I think to myself, thank God this pain only lasts a day.

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Shame & Women’s Body Hair


IMG_1357editedI was 13 years old, standing in the playground stark naked from the waist down. I don’t think the girl who pulled my trousers down expected my panties to come with them, but they did. I stood there, my pubescent hair suddenly exposed. “What can people see as I bend down?” I thought as I pulled my trousers up. A hot wash of shame spread through my body. No one followed me as I turned around and walked blankly to the girls toilets. I was shocked, mortified and wished the ground would swallow me up.

I repressed the experience. In order to face spending the rest of my day around people who’d seen me stark naked, I donned a mask of stoic indifference. They had borne witness to the exposure of a deeply private, uncomfortable and unowned aspect of my changing body, brought into plain view of eyes and minds that, along with my own, conspired to keep it shameful and concealed. My transition into womanhood was heavy with the discomfort and shame of what my body grew and where it grew it. Without my consent, these eyes had seen a part of me I was keeping safe and hidden for a time IMG_1784EDITwhen I could accept it. That time never came.

As I grew older it was an undiscussed rule that all girls and women should remove the hair from their bodies. From my legs and my bikini line, to my armpits and my upper lip – and these are just the obvious places – the hair was regularly waxed, shaved, bleached, plucked or somehow concealed.
The whole process was kept under wraps like a dirty secret, only shared with my beautician and best friends; a bizarrely rigorous operation carried out to make sure that no one noticed we grew any hair at all. Today my girlfriends and I delight in disclosing to each other how hairy we are, or how long we’ve gone without waxing our legs or shaving our armpits, as if our temporary break from hair removal is a cheeky and rebellious ‘up yours’ to society (that we keep safely under wraps, of course). I did find some sanctuary from the relentless cycle of hair removal during my most serious relationship to date. After time spent apart I kept myself preened and ‘fresh’ when reuniting with my beloved, yet was more lax with the regrowth after some time spent together. Though this was only ever a minor deviation from standards imposed. Generally speaking, not having smooth child-like skin in the presence of a man (or woman) one is, or could potentially be sexually involved with, is done at one’s own risk – a woman can only really relax when she is hair-free.
IMG_1756 Edit 2For this blog post I have photographed myself and a group of close friends ‘wearing’ our hair without shame. An obvious reason for this is to rip the lid off the taboo that is female body hair by showcasing the confidence, self-acceptance, sexiness and even sensuality with which one can wear it. I have not had the resources to include other ethnic groups, age groups, or transgender women (if it hasn’t already been done, I would strongly encourage such a project). Yet, for me personally, I could not have photographed a more inspiring group of women. They have each touched me deeply through the lives they lead, the choices they make and the attitudes they have chosen. I am honoured they now grace the pages of my blog and join me in exposing their hair.

Another reason for this post is to encourage deeper discussion. More than just making a statement, I wish to seriously question the norms we take for granted as women, but also as a society. I am hardly the first woman to take issue with these norms, and the rich history of feminism(s) bares witness to such questioning around issues – many that are far more urgent and more violently oppressive than these. I stand on the shoulders of giants, but stand on their shoulders I will; until we truly begin to heal our individual and collective shame, such conversations will remain necessary. Many different avenues can be used in order to open minds and start chipping away at the unconscious seeds of oppression that germinated long ago and have a stranglehold on our hearts and minds. We can start anywhere – today, I have chosen to start with body hair.IMG_1495

There is no real understanding of oppression of any kind without unpacking the factors that keep it in place. To women who feel that removing their body hair is an empowering choice made out of their own free will, I ask you – how many of us have consciously chosen to opt into a paradigm that treats aspects of our bodies as shameful or repulsive? I respect the choices of women who wish to remain within the confines of normative behaviour. I often choose to do so myself – to transgress these confines often means looking our shame in the face, requiring the practice of both courage and vulnerability. Yet let us know that we were socialised into hair-removal through shame, and that shame is a tool used to control behaviour. In other words, we are buying into oppressive practices. None of us were naturally born disapproving of the hair on our bodies. Our early friendship groups, our early experiences of the male ‘gaze’, our film culture, the corporations that own hair-removal beauty products and spend billions on advertising – these factors amongst others have imposed upon us a standard that we cannot meet naturally. Not only can we not meet it naturally, but we must pay for the privilege of meeting a standard that shames us.

IMG_1657editedAt first, much of corporate advertising is intended to create the market it hopes to exploit. Simply put, corporations are in the business of duping us into believing we need what they want to sell us – by pulling on the strings of shame, belonging and self-worth, they manufacture our needs. In 1915, while female fashion was evolving to reveal more skin, Gillette saw an opportunity to cash in on what was a ‘gap in the market’ and put out its first womens razor. The beauty industry and other corporate
competition honed in on the profit-making, and the rest is history. Since then the likes of magazines, beauticians and girlfriend cultures have been the gatekeepers of our body-shame, reigning us in lest we ‘let ourselves go’ to the wilderness of our own hair. Natural creatures we shall not be – not if capitalism has its way. My dear friend and model Ruth E expresses the sentiment behind this paragraph perfectly: “Don’t try to tell me my [facial] hair is ugly. Don’t try to get extra money out of me by making me feel disgusting and inferior and imperfect. Don’t hold me to a standard I do not consent to being held to.”

We pay a far higher price for conforming to these standards than what it costs us to ‘look good’. While growing up, belonging was a matter of survival and so we perceived no choice in the matter: conform or be ostracised. For many women this belief remains. Not only do women conform to what they think men want and expect, they conform to the expectations of other women too. A woman unconscious of the shame that keeps her oppressed will be strongly affected by the unspoken competition amongst women for desirability, as well as the need for approval from other women for her looks. In order to belong, a woman has had to unconsciously agree that her value is not inherent but found in the eyes of others. So giving up her purposefully planned hair-removal routine (which often carefully coincides with plans from nights out to holidays) would mean totally revolutionising her self-image and, crucially, reclaiming her body. Are women ready for such radical inner change? Are we ready to consciously explore our bodies, minds and hearts for the shame that oppresses us? If we are we can begin the serious work of healing. We can plant the seeds for true and lasting self-liberation.

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All images © Anaïs Charles 2015. All rights reserved.