Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence.
Helen Lewis makes two main points in her story. First, she pushes the liberal idea that masculinity and femininity are arbitrary constructs that limit individuals and that should rightly be overthrown. However, she is concerned that young people challenging sex distinctions might think that they have to commit themselves to becoming transsexual.
We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature
...But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysphoria is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis?
Liberals are committed ideologically to the idea that sex distinctions are restrictive prisons. It stems from their underlying belief that individuals should be autonomously self created. Our sex is something we don't get to create for our self and therefore it is held negatively to be limiting to the individual.
If, however, you don't have the liberal starting point, you are more likely to see sex distinctions positively as an important aspect of identity, and as a pathway of self-development. The point is to try to perfect our sexed nature, rather than to liberate ourselves from it.
Helen Lewis goes on to make an interesting admission about her own attitude to her sex:
In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.
Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.
I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.
I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that.
What she seems to be describing is that moment in time in our teenage years when we develop into our adult bodies and we become aware of where we stand in the dating pecking order (what is sometimes called our SMV).
Apparently she was a little on the chubby side and therefore she felt bad about her adult body and rejected it. She could not live in her body, not because nature really intended for her to be a boy, but because she did not rank herself amongst the most sexually attractive of women.
I'm not quite sure how to respond to this. It strikes me as an all or nothing attitude: either you are born perfect or else you reject your body and deface it so that you feel like it is your own. I can't help but feel that if she had cultivated what was beautiful within and without that she would have developed towards something much higher and greater than being just another pierced and tattooed young woman.