In high school, I worked in a gift shop that sold gardening tools, books and trinkets. One of our best-sellers was a Hanes Beefy-T that read “REAL MEN GROW ROSES.” It tapped into something with customers—something about it felt clever, irreverent. Women would tease their husbands with the shirt; men would swagger up to the counter to buy them. But no matter what their reactions, gender was at the fore of how they responded—because what’s more gendered than claiming the experience of “real men”?
We see this meme a lot. “Real men love Jesus,” “real women take care of their children,” and so forth. But more insidiously, this meme takes hold in our movements and communities in big ways. Many of us preface our own experiences or aspirations with that phrase – “real women have curves,” “real women aren’t a size zero,” “real women don’t do housework.” We do it because, in a world full of restrictive social scripts, we seek to see ourselves reflected somewhere, anywhere. That lack of affirming images—or any images—leaves us to our own devices.
But sometimes, we don’t even get so far as to claim who is a “real woman.” For example:
This is body shaming, pure and simple. And thankfully, that’s been clearly identified in response memes that add affirming text like “it didn’t—they’re all beautiful” and my favorite “LOVE ALL THE WOMEN!!!” (a la Hyperbole and a Half).
But this tactic, which appears simply to be a well-intentioned misfire, has much more to it than that. Let’s unpack, shall we?
the pitfalls of flipping the script.
In so many marginalized communities, there’s a temptation—an easy temptation—to simply flip the script on oppression. “That skinny girl just needs to eat a sandwich, am I right?” “Imagine what it would be like if women ran the world—we wouldn’t have any of these problems!” This exists in a number of communities in a number of ways. This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in those statements—but they do lay traps for us to spring on ourselves later.
Here’s the problem: flipping the script leaves the script intact. The assumption in the meme above is that there is a right kind of body to have, and the women on the top row don’t have it. While body policing of thin women operates differently than it does with fat women, it’s still body policing, and it still feels like shit.
And it requires operating on the same old norms. If you think “that skinny girl needs to eat a sandwich,” that means her body is too thin, too small, too something. In order for something to be considered “too much” of anything, there has to be an ideal, a template or a norm—and this thin woman deviates from that norm. Reifying that ideal—even if we’re revising it—always leaves the huge numbers of people behind, and it almost always leaves out people of color, people with disabilities, gender nonconforming people, and many more. A truly liberatory approach to fat positivity/body positivity can’t simply replace one ideal with another, slightly shifting the whole system of body shaming and policing, but ultimately leaving it intact. So why rely on ideals at all? Why not just explode them with images of all of our bodies and stories of all of our experiences?
The first time I remember seeing a phrase claiming to speak to the body of “real women,” I remember my face flushing with embarrassment. It was a familiar feeling—a trigger, then the sear of humiliation. As an intersex woman, my sex and gender are always in question, and there is never enough evidence to somehow prove who I am, validate my body, or make sense of my gender. Despite my strong femme gender presentation and even stronger cisgender woman identity, my body will never fit all of the qualifications required of female bodies. I am not a “real woman,” and I am never allowed to forget it. “Real women” memes, despite being designed to create more space for more women, not only leave me out, but they bring up the string of moments of sex and gender policing I have faced over the years, and make me feel even less access to my own gender identity.
And I’m not the only one. Historically, as we have explored, transgender women have been accused of not being real women. Butch women and lesbians, too, are often described as too masculine to be “real women.” The “realness” of women of color has been contested through forced sterilization, birth control testing on Latinas, and much more. None of us are consistently understood to be “real women.” And not being seen as “real” isn’t just rhetorical—that perception is what leads to restriction to our access to resources, social acceptance, public spaces like bathrooms—even control of our own bodies.
On top of that, there are plenty of people who aren’t women who still need liberatory movements. That isn’t to say that every remark we make needs to reflect every marginalized community. But failure to be aware of who we’re leaving out makes it more difficult to include those people in the future. And it replicates precisely the kind of narrow essentialism we were initially trying to escape. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anyone to feel the burn of recognition, frustration and humiliation I feel when I realize I’m not “real.”
what you can do.
Talk about your experience on its own terms. Don’t do it at the expense of anyone else. Describing the rights, respect and dignity that all of us deserve can be just as catchy as flipping the script—and it’s much less likely to leave those who share our struggles behind.