What is a female body? And who has one?
Right now, the answers are certainly up for grabs.
To what extent does living in a female body pre-determine our affiliations with other females, with self-formations and identifications, and susceptibility to cultural projections about the "essence" of gender? or lead to assumptions about what's healthy or unhealthy for female bodies to do and become?
Does gender even exist in a naturalized state, apart from knowledge systems and their enforced performances in the social world? Trans rights people see this post-modern assertion somewhat differently. It's certainly possible, and now not uncommon, to seek in gender an integrity in a body/mind that's different to the assigned gender at birth. In this context, gender is hardly a delusional, purely historical, and naive category. Many have and will risk strong interventions such as hormone therapy and surgery to achieve that naturalness and ease in their own skin.
Gender is a deep mystery which our culture seems to be willing to tackle, at the same time that we have been forced to re-examine our longstanding exploitative relationship with nature. And the timing for me is not coincidental. I'm not coming up with reactionary, pseudo-biological theories around the coincidence, either. The timing is another profound mystery. I'm starting to ask questions about how much of gender was ever part of the "red in tooth and claw" myth of natural instinct, linked to our bios.
Perhaps for too long we progressive types (yup, me) rested easily in a kind of daft broadmindedness. As one example, Freud apparently casually accepted the bisexual potential in humanity, while taking for granted the polarity of a naturally female gender (or male gender):
"It is well known that at all times there have been, as there still are, human beings who can take as their sexual objects persons of either sex without the one trend interfering with the other. We call these people bisexual and accept the fact of their existence without wondering much at it … But we have come to know that all human beings are bisexual in this sense and their libido is distributed between objects of both sexes, either in a manifest or a latent form. "
I thought the matter rested there, and shared Freud's lack of curiosity about the variations in gender/sex. He who was so curious about the human condition actually said, "without wondering much at it." And he assumed one "trend" wouldn't interfere with another? It all seems very blithe. He bypasses the question of gender and its interplay with bisexuality as I have over the years. The attitude was that callous and entitled. In the 1990s when gender categories were asserted to be a phenomenon strictly based on social performativity, then any description of female apart from biological reportage seemed factitious.
Trans gender identity is not a fantasy, and an exceptional state; it's the legitimate choice of many young people. I don't think it's a fad. What I'm currently questioning is how this fits in the context of modern hatha yoga with its superficial understanding of and hyper-focus on gender imagery as the core of the hatha yoga subtle body model.
I'm much clearer on what we might not better say about gender or gender typical experiences. Can only women get pregnant? Nope. Conventional, naturalistic descriptions of the feminine can't determine who has a female body. But postmodern critiques of gender can't eliminate the desire of some to inhabit a different perghaps female, gendered body.
In relationship to yoga teaching, cisgendered female teachers who over-focus on conventional notions of gender, highlighting their own experiences stemming from being female-assigned at birth, can problematize the student-teacher relationship, and restrict the liberatory potential of practice. The narration of these experiences, though "relatable" and good marketing practice, lead to hatha yoga practices, based on rhetoric, i.e. to improve the female-identified body and mitigate its discontents.
In narratives accompanying personal websites of teachers, there is often a history of critical inspections of one's own female body, with yoga usually being the key to acceptance and integration of traumata at the root of body dysmorphia. Hatha Yoga practice is theorized to prevent negative impacts on female well-being, particularly all issues stemming from gender. The cisgendered female teacher often reproduces these practices via blogs, publication, and teachings. These in turn continue to represent her own peculiarly "feminine" history, i.e. ovarian cancer, sexual trauma and gendered oppression, menopause, abortion, various eating disorders (still primarily gendered).
We might see these narratives as inducements to purchase feminine products, yoga practices designed to help women embrace their suffering as "the path." And maybe these narratives and the yoga goddesses who relate them really are the muses of American white womanhood. It's just the way things are--that's the cynicism that lets this business continue.
The elitism of "feminized" discontent when it's broadcast in blogs, books, seminars and celebrity interviews ... while seemingly democratic, apparently embracing all races, sizes, etc, appealing to anyone with a female-identified bioform, is something I'd like to pause on, and reject, at least for my own teaching.
Because only certain females are allowed the space to express these concerns publically, with dignity intact. The rest live through the micro-examinations made by (usually) white or upperclass female gurus, with their elite access to food, herbs, premium dermatology, dentistry, and healthcare, and unquestioned gender normativity. The rest (the students) follow practices that reproduce the concerns of these teachers, but perhaps not their most pressing concerns, which might include gender-neutral identifications, disability, economic hardship, vulnerability to environmental and racial trauma, illness beyond "feminine ills" or a host of other factors which could be shaping our practices, but do not because of susceptibility to the white or economically elite guru-influencer.
"Female principle" "Yin" "Shakti" branded teaching, resulting in ever more elaborate discipline of the body, arrive to a client reader or student under the broad umbrella of "self care" without requiring any real sustained self-reflection or collective formation in the student's own context and community -- only an identification with the (over-) represented female body of our Guru-ess, now presenting herself as "dakini", "friend", "ally", "yoga therapist." Or, more insidious in my view, "online yoga community leader."
And if we follow these muses, we may forget about what we need to move forward in our own context as we live it day to day. The aspiration for liberation, if lived through this kind of manipulative figure, leads to standardization, the machine of oppression, whether it's in whiteness, patriarchy, economic or colonial power.
Further, we may ignore the challenge posed by trans femininity to this hyper-preoccupation with biological feminity. The questions posed about who owns their own female body, whether in the context of capitalism, automation, or gender politics, will be of primary importance in the next decade or two. We need individually and within our own collectivities to ask Simone de Beauvoir's question, one which signalled her impatience with popular rhetoric around women's rights and identity, "are there women, really?" The next generation will ask that same question with much greater patience and open-mindedness.