The Untold Story of Rosemary Kennedy

By Jack Ford.

The sad but true story of Rosemary Kennedy, sister of former US president John F Kennedy, highlights a lot in terms of the treatment and portrayal of women with mental health issues in the 1950’s

The third oldest of Joe Kennedy Sr.’s children, Rosemary Kennedy had difficulties from a young age. She was regularly excluded from her siblings’ games, as she found it hard to take part, and she also had big problems with reading, which saw her fail twice to graduate from kindergarten.

At 15, her parents had her removed from public school, largely out of shame, and sent her to a boarding school in Rhode Island, where she was kept separately from all the other students. One letter she wrote home read: “Darling Daddy, I hate to disappoint you in any way. Come to see me very soon. I get very lonesome every day.”

Despite her educational struggles, she was seen as an even-tempered and happy young girl, who had a number of hobbies and interests, enjoyed social outings and showed a great interest in social welfare and education. Rosemary was briefly educated in England, where the family had moved to after her father was appointed US ambassador. It was during this time she was said to have made great strides in her character and school work.

A young adult when the family moved back to America, those around her would see sudden, evident changes in Rosemary. She had become boisterous, combative and was prone to mood swings. In an attempt to remedy her new behaviour she was placed in a convent, but she would regularly sneak out.

The family did not know how to control her, and with her two oldest siblings – John and Joe Jr. – about to enter the world of politics, there was a fear that Rosemary’s behaviour would threaten their chances of winning office.

It was then that a doctor friend of Joe Sr. told him about a procedure that could fix neurological problems like his daughter’s – a lobotomy. Without hesitation, and not hesitating to inform anyone else in the family, Joe whisked 23-year-old Rosemary away to Wingdale Psychological and Correctional Facility in New York to have one performed. He ignored all the warnings about the risks associated with the procedure, and any possible wishes of his daughter, and Rosemary was lobotomised.

She went silent on the operating table, and when the doctors tried to get her to respond, not only was she unable to speak, she was unable to move. The operation had gone wrong. The Kennedys’ fought to keep Rosemary out of a mental institution all their lives, but following the botched procedure, there was no other option but to commit her. It took months of physical therapy to get her to move again, but she never regained the ability to walk or speak.

Rosemary spent the rest of her life in Jefferson, Wisconsin, at a specialist support school. The family largely played down her disappearance, and when they did eventually acknowledge her, they cited mental deficiencies as the reason for her absence from the public eye. Aside from her mother, on one occasion, she never received a visit from any family member, and in 2003, at the age of 85, Rosemary Kennedy passed away.

Rosemary Kennedy’s actual condition is open to speculation, but in a new age of understanding of mental conditions, it’s easy to see signs of a variety of illnesses that today are easy to treat and manage.

She was not alone in her persecution either, history has seen innumerable people with easily treatable and manageable conditions either being given the wrong care or institutionalised. Women have fared particularly badly; with their own feelings not regarded. Often, any change in personality was jumped on and scrutinised, and until recently, emotional changes associated with the monthly cyclecould have been classified as ‘hysteria.’

Accounts from history like this go to show us is how far we’ve come in how we view and treat mental illnesses.  Rosemary’s sad story unfolded at a time when there was little known about the causes for mental instabilities and stigma surrounded them, not helped by the Kennedys trying to protect their now famous name.

About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

My Vagina Monologue

By Amelia Brown

I read ‘The Vagina Monologues’ three years ago today on a coach back to London, laughing and sobbing the entire way. I used to not even be able to say the word “vagina”. It terrified me. It stuck in my throat, liked folded cardboard, choking me. If I did manage I’d say it quietly, coming out more like a splutter than a word, said with hands folded and eyes averted. Eve Ensler (author of ‘The Vagina Monologues’) says that the word ‘vagina’ sounds like a disease, even a “medical instrument”. To me, it sounded stoney and cold and rooted in Latin. It took me a long time to get past that. I had to go back through all the letters in this short word, turning them into my own.

V – smooth on my tongue, buzzing at the back of my throat like a vibrator or a bee, open to an a, ah, a laugh, a song, g, oh that g, the softness of the g, like plunging your fingers into warm clay. ‘In’ came together, inside, centre, then a again, moaning. V.A.G.IN.A.

On Ensler’s advice, I bought a hand mirror, I set aside an afternoon, I closed all my curtains, and I looked. First thing: the hair. As a child I would spend hours, eyes tight shut, wishing the hair away, hoping that if I wished hard enough it would just disappear. I dreamt of waking up one day and seeing nothing and feeling so happy and not feeling ashamed. For years it was red, barren, and itchy. Now I do not shave. The hair is my comfort, my softness, my safety. I like to twirl it in my fingers at night. I like its darkness after I have showered. Monique Wittig refers to pubic hair as a “pubic fleece”.  I nearly cried when I read that. Yes, I thought, yes. It keeps me warm, holds me soft.

Beneath the hair was red lipped softness that I could fall into like love. I discovered vaginas at the same time as I discovered love. I fell faster and more hopelessly than I ever thought was possible. There were some bruises, but mainly I experienced an overwhelming sense of life and wonder.

My love affair with vaginas will be one for life.

My vagina terrifies me some days. I do not understand it, I cannot control it. But I trust it.  We are a team, my vagina and me, us against the world.

If your vagina got dressed, what would it wear?

Silver doc martens, my favourite crop top, dungarees, wings in case it ever needs to fly away.

If your vagina could talk, what would it say, in two words?

Be kind.

What does a vagina smell like?

Home.

About the Author

Amelia has always lived in London and finally made the move from the dreaded suburbs to central London. I’m 22 and I a writer and theatre maker, who also pulls pints in an attempt to avoid the 9-5 grind. I love dancing all night long (I’m told enthusiasm is more important than skill), art that changes the world and pizza.

The Pill and Me ♥

A note from the Editor

Dear Friends,

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Gender + the City would like to send you a Valentine’s Day card this year…

It’s an amalgamation of our stories and perspectives, pains and pleasures, experiences and insights on the subject of the contraceptive pill. I’d like to thank all our lovely contributors for sharing so candidly.

To start off our hot V-day date with the pill, here’s my own contribution to our contraception collective:

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Katie Staal

I was on the pill for seven years; from the age I started having sex with my first boyfriend up until last year. I went on it because that’s what every girl did when they started having sex. For seven years I went to the doctors alone and picked up my prescription alone. I was weighed and questioned, the blood pressure armband squeezed tightly around my upper arm. My contraceptive world ticked along, invisible to eyes of my boyfriends who in total peace and serenity, came inside me.

I loved my little sugar-coated dose of Microgynon every day, it made me feel safe and protected. I trusted it. I never missed a day. Taking it became so much a part of my sense of self, that it seemed abnormal when I stopped consuming them (for one week of the month to have my period.)

It was only last year that confusion and concern began to invade my contraceptive bubble. In reality, I knew very little about the long term effects of my daily dose. What happens to your body when you stop taking it? What about if you want to come off, and then go back on again? Was I still too young to think about quitting? All of these questions simmered as I eyed my pill with suspicion. 

There are over one million pill takers. And yes, the pill can have a damaging effect on the long term health of women and girls[1] The pill is a Feminist issue, and men (the very men that fuck women on the pill all the time) are often ignorant of the emotional, mental and physical labour that we go through to avoid unplanned pregnancy. To be truly equal, shouldn’t both sexes share the load? What the hell happened to the infamous male pill?! We’ve been ‘five years’ away from male contraception for fifty years! 

Then I began to get really pissed off. Do all these questions fall on deaf ears because contraception is still deemed a ‘women’s issue’, and therefore irrelevant, unimportant and underrepresented in scientific and medical research?

The pill just didn’t cut it for me anymore. I needed to go cold turkey.

As it turns out, the most useful advice on how to quit the pill came from sharing stories with my girlfriends. In a bar in Soho one night, a friend looked me straight in the eye and said ‘come off it, trust me, The Pill fucks you up, and then you can’t go back’. She continued gravely: ‘The side effects makes it feel like we still don’t really have a choice, it’s a lose/lose situation.’

The Pill was introduced in 1961 and yet in 2017, my friend echoed the same sentiment expressed by the first wave of Feminism. Their fight has become ours, and it’s clearly not over yet. Even worse, there’s a superpower cheeto out there who at the flick of a pen, seeks to reinforce the oppression female bodily autonomy.

I’ll admit, I’ve been off the pill for over a year now and I’m still a little confused about what’s going on in my body. Many of my original suspicions have continued to simmer, taking on new shapes and forms. Alarmingly, I lost a lot of weight in a pretty short amount of time and experienced painful period cramps and other weird PMS symptoms that I’d never had before. The worst was something I affectionately named ‘fart brain’, where for the first couple of days of my period, I basically feel like I’m on another planet! I can’t think straight and struggle to concentrate.

Through all of my frustrations and anxieties, my friends provided a listening ear. Talking to them helped me check in with myself, and eventually, realise how I really felt about the changes I was going through. I hope the stories to follow in this article are equally valuable, and can help you to find comfort in solidarity with our pill taking sisters.

[1] Side effects of the pill include: heart disease and stroke, depression, DVT, blood clots, migraines and an increased risk of cervical cancer to name a few.

Please like GATC on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter. You can also follow Katie on InstagramSpotify and Goodreads.

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Anonymous 

The Contraceptive Saga: A Series of Limericks

There once was a young girl at school
with pills as her protective tool.
She didn’t know others,
but came to discover
an IUD was not as cruel.

Once she missed the pill and got stressed.
Plus side effects made her depressed.
A nurse gave advice:
“This copper device
will have all your problems addressed!”

Though she met the change with intrigue,
the coil gave her cramps and fatigue.
She squirted much blood,
proclaimed “It’s a dud!
A method for men is in need.”

But she hadn’t quite lost her will:
protection without getting ill.
She spoke to her doctor.
His answer did shock her:
“Not condoms nor coil? Try the pill!”

Tried condoms, an NFP app,
but these were refused by her chap.
Why should she feel sick
for the sake of his dick?!
She gave up and told him to fap.

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Angelique Jones

My experience with the pill is by no means unique: the doctor told me so.

When I was 15 I went to the GP with my mum, because I had a few pimples on my chin, and (something called) period pains; but, I didn’t really have a period: I had an extremely long one once for a week when I was 13, I had to sit on towels, couldn’t go to school. What I hadn’t mentioned was that I heard at school, that it makes your boobs bigger, too, but that so-and-so got fat. It was a risk; but I was 15, and so foresight – what’s that?

The doctor said Microgynon would clear up my skin and give me regular, painless, bleeds. Sweet, whatever that means. So, I took the tiny pill for 3 weeks, stopped and had a bleed. But, most of the time I chose when I would have a period, sometimes I took it every day; periods are annoying, especially when you have to wear shorts for P.E, and you have to buy tampons because it’s “ew, gross” to wear pads.

After two and a half years of playing around with the pill, I was getting pretty depressed, and a bit fat – but I was also binging on sugar, and skipping meals because I didn’t know how to express myself: girl, age 17-18 years. I would just cry, and then eat a loaf of bread and 5 KitKat Chunkies.

The doctor’s told me to take Citalopram 20 (anti-depressants) and keep taking the pill to regulate my hormones. I didn’t feel good.

I stopped taking the pill after 3 years, and the anti-depressants after 5 days. I bled for 10 days. I haven’t bled since. I’m now 26.

The doctors keep telling me to take the pill, so that I can have a “normal” period.

Angelique is Film Editor for both The Rational, and On the Beat. You can follow her on Instagram @Angeliquejones_

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Ariane Laurent-Smith

I am 22 years old, I’ve tried four different types of contraception, and fingers crossed, I think I found my perfect match. I was put on Loestrin 20 at the age of fifteen because my periods hurt so badly that I was near to fainting. When I became sexually active, it made sense for me to go on Loestrin 30, deemed a ‘proper’ contraceptive pill. I took it for two years, but never trusted it enough not to use condoms at the same time. Really, it was more of a back-up. It’s funny that I took something with awful side-effects as a ‘back-up’.

I didn’t connect the dots until much later, but every time I stopped taking my pill, whether it was to have my period or I forgot (we’ve all been there!) I would feel extremely emotionally fragile for following week or so. I felt like I could cry at the drop of a hat. After this, I tried the contraceptive injection. Also, a no! The emotional side-effects were even worse than the pill, and I refused to accept the idea that I should stick with it for another three months because the side-effects ‘should’ tail off. It’s just not worth the risk.

Enter my knight in shining armour. I’m not talking about a man. In fact, men don’t even have an option for hormonal contraception, since development of the male injection was cut short. No, my knight is the IUS. Otherwise known as intra-uterine system, the hormonal coil, the Mirena, heaven in a contraceptive. That is, unless you’re unlucky to be on the receiving end of one of the major side-effects. Although these are rare, in some cases it can pierce your womb (I love being a woman!) Even my dream contraception hurts to get inserted – the cramps and contractions I experienced, I can only compare to what I imagine the pain of labour is (oh the irony).

My boyfriend at the time rubbed circles on my back with one hand and called a taxi to go home with the other. The pain lasted a few hours but since then, I’ve felt like I’m floating, with a peace of mind I never knew was possible.

Hear more from Ariane on Oxide News Radio.

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Ellis Taylor

After 8 years, I made the decision. My life was good; I’d overcome some really tough experiences and gone through plenty of counselling. But I still didn’t feel right.

I was 18 when I went on the combined pill and 24 when I came off it. I was 18 when I started to feel anxious and low. When I was 21 I was prescribed antidepressants. Was this a coincidence? I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think it was.

Before making my decision, I spoke to friends and researched the effects of the combined pill on mental health. Finally, I decided that it was time to stop taking it. I thought it would fix my mood swings – hell, I thought it might even ‘cure’ my depression.

When I first came off the pill it was wonderful. I felt like I was meeting my body and my natural rhythm for the first time! My body was doing what it was meant to be doing – not what it had been instructed to do by a little pill. My antidepressants reduced, I was getting closer and closer to being totally medication free for the first time in years.

It’s now been a year. My natural monthly rhythm lasted a couple of months, but now that my body has had time to adjust, problems that I never knew existed have revealed themselves.

When I came off the pill it was because thought it would ‘fix’ my mental health issues. It has helped, but coming off has also revealed a new knowledge of my body, an awareness that uncovered potential problems, problems otherwise discovered.

Follow Ellis on Instagram.

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Freya Turner

Drug in Greek is Pharmakon. This word refuses to define whether it means to cure or to poison. ‘Kon’, as if to cheat us of meaning.

Granting me my last resort for acne treatment in a little windowless office, some doctor put me on Yasmin. It was a flippant decision for him, and a hesitant one for me. I was living in Amsterdam at the time; my first time living abroad. Just outside the clinic, one of the beautiful and unsure canal rings was winding away and away, coiling together a paper cut-out city. It made me lose my way home.

Washed down somewhere, into my blood, silently. It’s an intoxicating idea. It is tiny and slight and light, barely detected by the tongue. Is this dangerous slightness the feeling of a womanhood?

I took it for the time it takes to grow a baby. At least that’s what I remember. Having ‘moderate’ acne, it felt as if I had a clinical diagnosis warning me of my constant uncertainty and wavering.

Is this a numbness? // Maybe it is hyper awareness. // How am I to ever know when I am feeling drug mood or my mood? // Then what is mine? // Is medically constructed good skin a contract; all moods suddenly mine? // What is more possible: absence or unusual movement of emotion? // And who is to say which out of frequency or size of spot, is the most destructive?

I couldn’t answer the questions. This medical exchange became a project, I realised, in a woman’s capability of tolerating what she thought and her own and others’ politics of health and superficiality.

Like many projects, this one ended. I now let the acne thrive, and I use nothing for it.

Freya is a regular contributor to GATC, you can read more of her recent writing here and here

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Polly Hember

Discussions on birth control are deeply political, revolving around reproductive rights, female autonomy, body politics and so on. Second-wave feminists in the 1960’s and 70’s argued that control over a woman’s own fertility was, in no uncertain terms, power. This was a power that gave women access to more control over if and when they wanted to have children. Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood) stated in 1920 that a woman who relies on men for birth control, is a woman ‘exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires.’

However, a trend I have noticed with young women in their twenties now is a deep sense of resentment about their pill. Why should women have to risk blood clots, weight gain, mood swings, acne, loss of libido and more in order to enjoy sex and avoid pregnancy, when men get all the benefits without the side effects?

At 19, I experienced inconsolable mood swings due to the brand of my contraceptive pill. At 23, I was nearly hospitalised because of an infection caused by the copper coil. At these times I have to admit that I have felt it unfair that women shoulder the burden, the risk and the sole accountability of pregnancy-free sex.

Contraception is always going to be a multifaceted, emotive and complex discussion. President Trump is attempting to enable US employers to deny women insurance coverage that pays for their birth control. Whether you feel empowered or resentful, the issue is freedom of choice. The support, education and the availability of birth control one decides on more critical than ever before.

Polly Hember is Art Editor for The Rational and found of On the Beat.

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Izabella Karasinska-Stanley

When I got a boyfriend, I knew it was time for me to get the pill. Oddly, I never considered any other option. At the time, I didn’t know anyone who was using the coil, or the implant. For me, it was this, or condoms, and condoms break, or we might run out. The pill was entirely up to me. That’s what I wanted.

I was slightly nervous when I waited in the Sexual Health clinic, but mostly I wasn’t. It seemed so easy. You just ask the doctor to prescribe you a contraceptive, as if ordering a pizza in a restaurant. You say what you want, they ask follow-up questions, like if you want added parmesan, or if you have multiple sexual partners, and then you wait a bit, and then they give it you. It’s very easy.

It’s been just as easy ever since. I know I’m lucky. I have plenty of friends who reacted badly to it, or who keep forgetting to take it. But for me, it works fine. I don’t forget it. And most importantly, it hasn’t completely fucked me up. I’m really lucky. I can have sex all the time, whenever I want. I’m never scared. I’m always protected.

And yet, I think I might stop taking it soon. Switch to something else.

That’s the thing about the contraceptive pill. It’s like social media stealing your data, or your GPS tracking your every move. Those sites are convenient, but something about them seems wrong. It’s the same feeling. You don’t get real periods. Your hormones aren’t working right. So many things about the running of your female body line up with your menstrual cycle. What about all of that?

It’s the same feeling Miss Clavel has in Madeline, you know?

“Something is not right”.

Follow Izabela’s film photography Tumblr and find her on Instagram @izabela_ks.


Illustrations by Anna Sudit
@annasudit
http://www.annasudit.com

A New Perspective on Bodies

By Ruth Ankers

‘You need to step away from the mirror every once in a while and look for another reflection. Like the one in the eyes of the people who love you and admire you’[1]

Stacy London’s got it right.

There have been countless articles, books and ideas created around discussions of body image and body shaming. They often conclude that we should love our bodies no matter what.

Don’t lose interest yet, this is not another one of those articles.

I’m not here to tell you to feel better by eating a bag of kale, nor am I going to assure you that “big is better”.

In fact, I think on the whole that both these types of expressions miss the point.

So what is the point?

If you ask me, addressing our bodies shouldn’t be limited to “celebrating” our different sizes and shapes. The conversation has the potential to extend in focus to consider our obsessions with the body.

I’m sure you’re ready and armed with your “healthy body healthy mind” shotgun, and yes, that would be a valid shot. But, I’m not suggesting that eating well doesn’t have a positive impact on your state of mind. However, an obsessive mind is not a healthy mind, and we need to be careful where we draw the lines.

This is a particularly pressing conversation, as millennial women are labelled by their seniors as the most ‘self-obsessed’ of any generations that have come before.

It would be pointless to open up a debate about the types of food which are right and wrong to eat. I’m not a nutritionist, although I am a good cook. I cook healthy food, I eat healthy food … and I eat cheese, bread and pasta and all the things which make my mouth water.

This article isn’t about food, exercise or diet plans. It’s about perspective.

Can we take the heat off ourselves, please? Can we eat and be healthy and well without having to plaster it all over the internet. Social media can be more dangerous than we often notice. When we jump on the public body bandwagon, we push our obsession with bodies to the forefront, keeping them in the spotlight. A spotlight which could be shifted and distributed to different issues.

I’m not suggesting you should abandon your relationship with your body. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t love and enjoy your partner’s body. After all, we are all beautiful, and deserve to be admired. But is it possible to have a time out?

Is all the chatter around bodies getting a bit much?

Stacy London thinks we should spend more time looking into the eyes of the people we love, instead of at our reflection. I agree. We need to make sure, going forward, that we save looking at our own bodies (or other bodies on the internet) and use this time to look more into the eyes of people we care about.

That’s how we find “body confidence”, no matter what shape or size you are. We can always find beauty by looking at someone we love, and recognising that they see you – your soul, your views, your experiences and your kindness. Not your jean size.

[1] http://www.thehumangathering.com/stacylondon/

About The Author

IMG_20170907_103552_343

Ruth Ankers is a Drama and Applied Theatre Practitioner and Teacher. She favours writing poetry and short plays. Ruth is a firm believer in equality of gender and is really exited to be writing for Gender + the City!

Illustration by Laura Callaghan
http://www.lauracallaghanillustration.com/
@lauracallaghanillustration

Vegetarianism, Gender and Consumption: Are your politics what you eat?

By Ruby Martin

I recently read Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian by Han Kang after picking it up in a charity shop. I had picked it up largely because of the title alone, but as a self-identifying (somewhat) vegetarian since the age of eight, I was quickly intrigued by the blurb selling vegetarianism as “the ultimate act of subversion”.

My interest was piqued. How could choosing the falafel wrap at Tesco be a subversive act? With even the most mainstream chains such as Pret embracing veggie branches, my dietary lifestyle hardly seemed ‘fringe’, despite being a leftie creative type in a liberal bubble. It seems that vegetarianism and veganism is the trend du jour in the UK, with veganism rising by over 360% in the past decade and – among women in particular – general meat consumption across the UK having been reduced, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

But why?

There are various possibilities, but evidence from a recent Mintel survey suggests that health is the top reason for limiting meat consumption. Does this mean that women are more health conscious than men? And if so many people cite health as a reason for giving up meat, can we still interpret that as a subversive act? In the same Mintel survey, around half of respondents had also said they had tried to lose weight, with 57% of those respondents being women. Now whilst losing weight isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are various industries who profit from the population dieting, the most obvious being weight loss, but more general food companies such as Quorn and Linda McCartney will still profit off those who think that eating less meat will help lose weight.  This affects gender as advertising companies have been known to target different audiences and throughout the years, companies have sold very different ideals to what men and women should be.

Whilst no doubt men are encouraged to lose weight, they are also encouraged to get “ripped”; women are often simply encouraged to be thin and talk purely in terms of fat rather than muscle. This is shown in the examples below, in adverts for the same diet products, HCG. To men, HCG sell the idea of keeping muscle whilst to women, muscle is not mentioned at all; instead the focus is on losing pounds and reducing bodily size.

This is shown in the same way Instagram fads such as ‘clean eating’ and other diets are aggressively sold towards women. Now this may seem like obvious stuff, but combined with the notion that vegetarianism is a healthier way to live, it would be easy to reach the conclusion that more women may incorporate it as a weight loss strategy thanks to cultural pressure.

However, before all hope is lost, we can now address how vegetarianism can be a force for good.

Whilst we could assume that all these women are turning veggie for them sweet inch losses, I believe that fails to recognise the individual agency and personal reasons behind the decision. When asked, each person I know who identifies as vegetarian had a completely different combination of reasons for giving up meat, and while health (and weight) played a part for some, other factors such as the environment, personal taste, financial considerations and animal welfare were given equal importance.  When asked why they became a vegetarian, these were just a few examples given:

“Primarily upbringing”- T, London

“Environmental reasons. The final reason why was a book I read which, in the epilogue spoke of the downfall of the west due to our over-exploitation of resources, the effects of which could be mitigated by, for example, eating less meat.” -A, Switzerland

“For me it’s a mental health thing. If I eat meat, I feel that ‘this animal died for me’. I can’t live with that” – J, Oxford

This admittedly non-scientific straw poll reminded me that everyone lives within a different cultural context which needs to be considered, and indeed that those contexts can be weaponised and used in women’s everyday politics. This idea of using consumption – or indeed non-consumption – as a weapon is something that captivated me in Kang’s book since the main character, Yeong-hye, is seen to not only reject a staple element of the cuisine that surrounds her, but she also rejects and defies her husband’s and family’s wishes and expectations through her actions. She refuses to make the meals her husband wants and implicitly expects from his wife, simultaneously rejecting entrenched food traditions and normative husband/wife power dynamics of marriage. In fact, Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian becomes a catalyst for other behaviour seen as rebellious and very much in opposition to expectations of her as a wife and daughter.  In this context, vegetarianism is a potent act of subversion.

Interestingly, all of the flexitarians (and some meat-eaters) I talked to, told me how they still eat meat as part of family traditions such as Christmas, to avoid what they believe to be inconveniencing their parents or family. This is in contrast to many of the full-time vegetarians I know (including myself) who have at least one other vegetarian family member and thus for whom the decision not to eat meat seems less controversial. Whilst in the ‘cushy London bubble’, to go veggie is a minor rebellion, for those elsewhere in stricter upbringings this gesture could perhaps have far more force.

More radical interpretations of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism in The Vegetarian – and indeed vegetarianism more generally – might follow those feminist philosophies which endorse the all-out rejection of every practice and material goods deemed as forced upon women by the patriarchy, e.g. the wearing of bras or marriage. However, some voices in the newer feminist waves call for a more individualist take, where women’s agency and individual desires are acknowledged and there is a belief that each woman should  be able to do as she pleases, without shame, e.g. dressing up in a sexy manner for your own pleasure than someone else’s.  This individualist stance relies heavily on the notion that this woman does what she wants for herself and that no external and possible patriarchal force is at play.

Now this individual stance certainly makes day-to-day living easier as it does not focus on complex sociocultural factors, but it is worth remembering that many ideas have been engrained in popular culture that we unconsciously absorb and accept to the point we may no longer question its historic roots, having been sold other notions along the way to make it politically more acceptable.  This can range from hair removal to marriage, and this more accepting strand of feminism can sometimes be used to avoid critically engaging with our consumption choices. This is not to say this isn’t a usable feminism, but to think about why we do things can allow us to change the systems in place as to ignore history can allow for the same mistakes to be repeated.

A politicised view of consumption that sees the choices women make as potential acts of rebellion might seem a far cry from the simple act of choosing the vegetarian option at lunchtime. However, the decision to go meat-free can bring up questions and thoughts that either buy into or reject current ideals of not only how women ‘should’ look, but how the current capitalist system can manipulate our supposed free will. Whilst most companies in the past have targeted consumers (and particularly female consumers) by making them feel bad, some companies seem to be realising that young women are on to them and are not happy. This has led to some brands starting to sell themselves as allies through mainstream ‘feminist’ notions. For example, Dove’s Real Women campaigns aligned themselves with body positivity, while many clothing brands such as H&M often incorporate feminist phrases into clothing to tap into the shifting market. The importance of motive is definitely worth thinking about with food companies, a prime example being ‘clean eating’ and similar diets selling themselves as a healthy option to ‘empower’ women. However in reality the product or the message hasn’t changed, just the wrapping.

To be vegetarian for environmental reasons amongst others is to reject a level of consumerism which is damaging our world as we know it, since meat farming has been shown to be damaging to the rainforests amongst many. Also, to be morally against the murdering of animals can show a reaction /resistance to the idea that we must kill to survive, a notion that is still somewhat fetishized in the variety of ‘one man against nature’ shows such as Bear Grylls. The moral dilemma can be problematic however, as vegan dish favourites such as quinoa can be shown to be harvested in tumultuous conditions which damage human workers, so it’s often a case of deciding where your ethics lie.

To conclude, our politics can be what we eat, with vegetarianism being just a small example of how the choices we make can buy into or subvert consumerist or cultural narratives imposed upon us and our gender. Whilst we must work hard to challenge these ideals when it becomes unhealthy, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the pesto pasta meal deal either!

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About the author

Ruby is a writer and comedian based in London who, when not taking on too many projects at the same time, likes to spend her time watching videos of animals being friends and carefully curating her Twitter. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics from UCL and spent a year living and studying in Venice, which has only fuelled her appreciation for pizza and ugly paintings of the baby Jesus.

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Image credit

Unnatural Selection by Maggie Chiang.

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Editor

Lucy Wheeler