Sourcebooks Fire Week: When Are We Going to Stop Policing Girls Bodies? by Laura Bates
Today for Sourcebooks Fire week we have an excellent post by author Laura Bates. Laura Bates is the author of the forthcoming The Burning, a book which blew me and The Teen away when we read it. It’s a really solid addition to the canon of feminist YA titles and I look forward to everyone reading and talking about it.
Teenage girls’ bodies are under siege. Across the country and around the world, girls are being sent out of classrooms or sent home altogether because schools believe that a glimpse of their knees, or their collarbones, or shoulders, or (shock horror) a sliver of their bra strap is so unacceptable that it must be punished. Again and again, girls who are trying to learn are told that their education must suffer because “boys might get distracted” or “it’s not fair on male teachers”. But if you’ve got a school where boys are looking up girls’ skirts or male teachers are made to feel uncomfortable by the fact that teenagers have knees, then I’ve got news for you: the girls are not the problem.
Thankfully, girls are fighting back. “I am not a distraction”, one campaign powerfully points out. It feels like a very modern battle cry – a roar of frustration from girls in the 21st Century who are furious that their education is being compromised and nobody is listening. But this isn’t a modern problem.
Several hundred years ago, a wave of witchcraft trials swept across the world, and thousands of people (mostly women) were executed for a crime that doesn’t really exist. The witchcraft craze was sexist: it saw women as powerful and dangerous, their sexuality and bodies as something to be policed, and public hysteria a means to control them. They used a tool called a ‘scolds bridle’ – a metal torture device fitted over a woman’s head like a cage, with a sharp blade forced into her mouth to cut her tongue if she spoke. Women were forcibly, violently silenced. In other words, prejudice had devastating real-world consequences.
But how much has really changed? Having body parts isn’t a crime either, but we are still punishing girls for it. And it’s strange how we don’t seem concerned about boys’ knees or shoulders being on display.
Accused ‘witches’ found themselves trapped in an impossible situation. Forced into freezing cold water, they were considered innocent if they drowned, but if they floated they must have been saved by the devil or used their magic powers, so they were ‘proven’ to be witches and often executed. They were damned either way. And the same remains true for girls today. They live in a world that sends them a million pressurizing messages about their bodies, their clothes, their sexuality. Everything from music videos to magazines to television to social media bombards them with the message that their bodies are the sum-total of their worth. And then they arrive at school to have those same bodies shamed, censored and stigmatized. We’re taught that we only have value if we are ‘sexy’. Then we’re punished and shamed for being ‘too sexy’. You’re either a slut or you’re frigid. There’s no way to win. In the 17th Century, ‘witches’ were forced to wear a hair shirt and stand in front of the church congregation to be publicly humiliated. In the 21st Century, schools have ‘shame suits’ instead.
Women who were accused of being witches were tortured by being kept awake for days at a time. Thrown into jail cells, they were pricked with a long needle whenever they tried to fall asleep in a barbaric process called ‘waking the witch’. There was no escape, no break, no let up. Today the bars of those cages are virtual, but they exist all the same. There is no escape from the relentlessness of social media, from the painful pricks of hurtful comments and online abuse, flooding in 24 hours a day. In its own way, it is a new form of torture. And just like those brutal, centuries old techniques, the consequences can be fatal.
The double standards back then were breathtaking. Men were terrified of women’s sexuality, with surviving records of witchcraft trials often making reference to fornication with the devil, or women who exerted strange and powerful control over men, making them act in ways they claimed not to be able to control. It might sound laughable now. But really, we are still making the same excuses for men: still punishing girls for boys’ transgressions. Girls who are harassed or even assaulted at school are repeatedly told they were ‘asking for it’ – blamed for what they were wearing, or where they were, or how they behaved. But we will never fix this problem unless we focus on perpetrators instead of victims. We’ve tried policing girls’ bodies for 400 years. It hasn’t worked. Isn’t it time we tried something else instead?
About THE BURNING by Laura Bates
A rumor is like fire.
Once a whore, always a whore.
Roses are red.
Violets are blue.
Anna’s a slut.
We all know it’s true.
And a fire that spreads online… is impossible to extinguish.
New school. Check.
New town. Check.
New last name. Check.
Social media profiles? Deleted.
Anna and her mother have moved hundreds of miles to put the past behind them. Anna hopes to make a fresh start and escape the harassment she’s been subjected to. But then rumors and whispers start, and Anna tries to ignore what is happening by immersing herself in learning about Maggie, a local woman accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth century. A woman who was shamed. Silenced. And whose story has unsettling parallels to Anna’s own.
From Laura Bates, internationally renowned feminist and founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, comes a debut novel for the #metoo era. It’s a powerful call to action, reminding all readers of the implications of sexism and the role we can each play in ending it.
“In The Burning, Bates challenges us all to think deeply and critically about a lot of issues surrounding teen girls… Definitely recommended.” – Teen Librarian Toolbox
“A painfully realistic, spellbinding novel.” – Shelf Awareness
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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