Gross-out feminism: is the political now too personal?

Saturday 2 November, 14:0015:30, Pit TheatreIdentity politics

In 1969 Carol Hanisch, an American feminist activist, published an essay titled ‘The Personal is Political’, a rallying cry used by the feminist movement. Fifty years later, it seems that contemporary feminism is now more concerned with the personal than ever before – at the most visceral, physical level – from campaigns around periods to debates about body weight.

Following a legal campaign headed up by a feminist Cambridge University student, chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond announced in his spring statement this year that schools would be provided with free sanitary products. Amika George and other young feminists used the #FreePeriods hashtag to call for an end to period poverty – claiming that one in 10 girls are unable to afford sanitary products. BBC broadcaster Emma Barnett’s book Period. claims that stigma around menstruation is holding women back across the country. A group of young feminists – including Grace Campbell, daughter of Alastair Campbell – set up The Pink Protest, a feminist collective which runs campaigns to destigmatise masturbation (#GIRLSWANKTOO), to end FGM (by amending the 1989 Children Act) and to talk about women’s mental health (#SadGirlsClub).

But it’s not just women’s menstrual cycles. Outspoken feminist and actress Jameela Jamil has won applause from politicians and commentators for highlighting the damaging effect of photoshop culture – starting an online movement called ‘I Weigh’ that seeks to challenge fatshaming and ‘fatphobia’. In the name of feminism, London Mayor Sadiq Khan even banned ‘bodyshaming’ diet adverts from the London tube. Anti-Trump protesters took to the streets wearing vagina-shaped ‘pussyhats’ during the Women’s March. The hit Netflix series Fleabag was celebrated as ‘empowering’ for including miscarriage and masturbation.

Feminist campaigners argue that until women’s bodies are no longer subject to sexist treatment, the personal will always be political. The #FreeTheNipple campaign which fights for women’s right to go topless – online and offline – involved three women taking their case to the Supreme Court this year after they were arrested for indecent exposure in 2016. But critics point out that the push to free women’s bodies is contradictory – as many of the #FreeTheNipple supporters also backed the campaign to end ‘Page 3’ glamour models from appearing in tabloid newspapers.

But while campaigns to end period poverty might easily garner support, some have pointed out that issues around women’s bodily autonomy and access to abortion don’t get the airtime they deserve. Pro-choice campaigners argue that a woman’s personal decision to have an abortion should not be a political one – instead, women should be left to make decisions about their bodies privately and safely. If arguing that everything is a woman’s issue – from our body hair to our bodily fluids – are we taking the oomph out of a serious demand for women’s liberation?

Where has this new ‘gross-out feminism’ come from? Is a younger, more liberated generation simply more comfortable about talking about their personal lives? Are critics of contemporary body-obsessed feminism just squeamish and behind the times? Or should a political movement for women’s freedom be more focused on changing the public sphere, rather than focusing on the private self?