As a child, she wrote fan-letters to famous feminists. Today, Laurie Penny is an author and journalist herself. She talked to Alexandra Schade and Julia Korbik about modern feminism and the connection between capitalism and eating disorders.
The European: Feminists sometimes get a bad reputation in the media. Why?
Penny: I think there is always going to be a lot of anger when the members of any privileged group have the perception that they are threatened. Whenever I hear that feminism needs to re-brand itself I always wonder who we're supposed to be doing that for -- because the point of any equality movement isn't to get all the people with more privilege and power than you to love and accept you. Feminism wouldn't have such a bad reputation if it were all about making men feel comfortable, but we already have a school of thought for that, and it's called 'patriarchy,' and it's not gone away yet. Lots of people seem to think that there is no point to feminism anymore and that equality has been won -- but in the worlds of work, power, sex, and economics we still have a long way to go.
The European: Despite these prejudices you are a feminist. How did this happen?
Penny: I actually read a copy of my mother's book The Female Eunuch by Australian feminist Germaine Greer (the book was published in 1970 and is considered Greer's most important work, N.B.). I decided that I wanted to be just like Germaine Greer. I wrote her a letter with my best pen, saying: "I am going to be a feminist just like you" -- and she wrote back! I was interested in feminism just like other girls were interested in stamps or ponies. Feminism was my geeky thing.
The European: Quite unusual for a young girl.
Penny: I guess so. But then when I was getting older, I started reading feminist blogs online and realized it wasn't just an unusual hobby, I wasn't the only one who thought about women's issues a great deal. The internet really has revived feminist debate for a new generation of women and men.
The European: Still, feminism can't get rid of its frumpy image. Why do we still need feminism today?
Penny: Feminism is very much an incomplete revolution. In some respect, feminism has achieved work and economics and how sex and culture are organized. What we need now is a deep cultural change which really brings improvement to the lives of most women across the world, and that's about more than just allowing a few women into the upper rungs of traditionally male employment sectors.
The European: In your book Meatmarket: Female flesh under capitalism you explain the connection between being a woman and eating disorders.
Penny: Eating disorders and other similar disorders among young women are very badly understood. I first became anorexic when I was twelve and I was in hospital for nine months when I was seventeen.
Eating disorders don't just affect women, but they are understood as a young women's disease, which affects the way they are seen. People think it's just about looking at magazines and wanting to be skinny but it's not about that at all. It's about cultural pressure to control yourself and the body. And that leads to what I call a 'white strike,' a 'sciopero bianco.' That's a tradition from Italy, where workers who aren't allowed to strike take industrial action by doing everything that they've been told to the letter, so that productivity shuts down. They leave on the dot of five, don't answer phones, don't do extra paper work, etc.
The European: An eating disorder is like a 'white strike'?
Penny: Yes, it's like doing everything you're told to do by society: take care of your body, exercice, eat less, work hard, don't complain -- but to such an extent that it's physically dangerous. It's a very passive aggressive, private, violent thing to do. And it's what young women do when any other kind of rebellion is forbidden. The cultural pressure on women to look and dress a certain way is massively important, but also misunderstood. What I talk about in Meat Market is the way capitalism works to make women's bodies an economic product appropriated to a cultural notion of perfection. So many of us waste so much time trying to look like this ideal, pretty, perfect, skinny, young white woman. Very few people really look like that -- and even those who do are heavily airbrushed. It's not just about vanity: The cultural consequences of not being seen to be working towards that stereotype are very real and very important to a lot of young women.
The European: How did you personally succeed to get out of it?
Penny: I consider myself very lucky to have been in treatment when I was young. It wasn't just about eating more, it was about learning to have the right to take up space, the right to be a whole person, messy, ugly, and human. And for me it was also about going back to feminism, reading more politics, becoming involved in activism and understanding recovery is political too -- it's not enough to make yourself better, when society is sick you have to change the whole world. I hope that, in some tiny way, my writing might reach a few young women and men and persuade them that they don't have to hurt themselves in this way. It's important that we finally begin to recognise that eating disorders are serious, not just a vain little girls' diseases. It's a serious disease with serious political and personal causes.
The European: And what can or must be done about it?
Penny: It's not just about women and their bodies. You can tell women that it's all about self-esteem and that it doesn't matter what they look like, but the fact is, we're living in a world where women are punished socially, economically, and culturally if they don't make an effort to be skinny and pretty and beautiful.
Recent studies have shown that women who are overweight are paid less than women who are of average weight, and women who are skinny and very underweight are rewarded even more at work, and this doesn't apply to men. There are actual economic consequences if you don't fit the stereotype, so it's not just enough to tell individual women not to care -- you have to change the way the that world sees women, how the world of power and privilege, which is still largely a patriarchal world, sees women.
The European: But there are also men suffering from eating disorders.
Penny: We live in a visual culture, and most people are under pressure to look good -- but I would say, though, that men aren't punished in the same way if they don't look good. A man can be overweight and ugly and not care for his appearance and still be respected, still be seen as a real, whole person. Think of male politicians: they can be overweight, ugly, and unshaven and people still respect them, but any woman in the public eye, even if her job has nothing to do with the way she looks, will be jugded first and foremost on her appearance, and even if she happens to be stunningly beautiful, that will still be the most important thing about her. That pressure is a different thing for men and women, and it's all about fear of women in public space, fear of women in public life. What that pressure says to women is: take up less space, take up less room. Be thinner. Make sure you're sexually attractive so that you can be dismissed as superficial before you even open your mouth.
The European: British scientist Catherine Hakim is promoting the so-called "erotic capital," a mixture of beauty and apperance, which women especially should use to reach their goals. For her, it's some kind of feminist weapon. You criticized Hakim in an article. What's wrong with using this erotic capital?
Penny: It's not that it's wrong per se, but using erotic capital is always going to be a limited form of power. Because only some women have that power, and they only have it for a limited time, and it's a kind of power that's about deferring to male power and making men want you sexually. That's only ever an incomplete sort of power, based on giving someone else the power to want, to desire. It's not wrong to use that, but you have to understand that it's not necessarily the kind of power that will bring lasting positive change to women's individual lives or collective social role.