Oh, Feminists, Can You Stop Telling People With Disabilities How To Take Care Of Their Bodies?
(A slightly different version of this post appeared at this ain’t livin’ under the title “Yes, Actually, I Can Make An Informed Choice“.)
There’s an interesting trend I’ve been noticing more of late at feminist websites: The idea that certain women don’t know what’s good for them. These women need to be told in no uncertain words about how to take care of their bodies, how to live their lives, how to interact with medical professionals, how to make decisions about their medical care. And, by extension, how to handle their disabilities.
Who are these women? They tend to be women who do things which feminists disagree with. For example, women who opt to have large families are informed that they are endangering themselves with multiple pregnancies and they should stop. Likewise, women who are considered “bad sluts” within the good slut/bad slut dichotomy are informed that they’re doing it wrong. That they are incapable of caring for themselves. Women who opt to stay at home, to not go to college, are also informed that they are making bad choices. Women with disabilities are routinely informed that they don’t actually know their own bodies and that they are endangering themselves. Simply by daring to be disabled and proud!
I’ve seen supposedly feminist websites saying that women should be subjected to unnecessary medical procedures “to make sure that they get STI testing,” because apparently women wouldn’t get STI testing if they weren’t forced to come in for excessively administered pap smears. I’ve seen sites saying that women should get screenings which are not recommended because otherwise they won’t know to take care of themselves and won’t see a doctor in a timely fashion. I’ve seen sites arguing that women who have multiple children are “brainwashed” and “need counseling.”
As one might imagine, I find this extremely irritating. Because, here’s the thing. I think that everyone is capable of making informed choices. And when I make an informed choice, I do not need to demonstrate to anyone that I have satisfied their requirements of what an “informed choice” is, and I do not need to justify my choice, ever. If a woman decides that she wants to have 12 children and she’s making an informed choice to do that, and it is not my business to tell her that she is engaging in risky behaviour and she is brainwashed.
People are welcome to disagree with the choices I make, and to feel that they would not make those choices (but they can’t know my situation so they can’t speak to the issues specific to me which might have shaped my choice). But to tell me that my decisions are not valid because they do not meet someone’s definition of “how to take care of yourself” or “how to be a feminist” is extremely problematic. Please note that I do not view coerced and false “choices” as true choices, and I think there is a legitimate discussion to be had about the “choices” women are forced into. Not whether or not women who make those choices are “feminist enough,” but about the circumstances which force them into those choices. (See the difference there?)
I cannot help but find it intriguing that mainstream feminism is remarkably supportive of “choices” which fit in with the framework of things that it views as “feminist.” Using birth control, for example, is supported and regarded as an informed choice when in fact many birth control users are not well informed and are not making an informed decision. Choosing to only have one or two children is also viewed as a choice worth supporting, but apparently choosing to have more children than that isn’t a “valid” choice any more. Mainstream feminism has a checklist of “what’s feminist” and choices which fall outside that checklist “aren’t feminist” even though decisions do not occur in a vacuum, not even one of perfect feminism, and do happen on a highly individualized basis which means that one choice does not fit all.
This attitude is especially troubling when it comes to disability matters, because it reinforces the idea that other people know more about women’s bodies than they do, and that doctors can and should force procedures on their patients. That ladies don’t know what’s good for them, and therefore it’s up to other people to tell them what to do. That women with disabilities can’t possibly make informed choices because there’s no way they could possibly know more than a mainstream feminist who is providing a lecture about “what’s good for you.”
Try making an informed choice at your doctor’s office. Really. Try asking for more information so that you have a complete picture before you make a decision. And try informed refusal: “no, I do not want this test, it is not necessary.” “I don’t need an appointment right now.” “Given that I’m a virgin, a pap smear is not appropriate.” Informed refusal is met with “well, we have to do it.” Subtext: You silly woman, you don’t know what’s good for you.
This attitude, that certain people get to decide what is feminist and what is not, is a form of policing. There’s one way to take care of your body, and one way only, and you cannot deviate from it. Only certain things are feminist and everything else is antifeminist. If you do not “choose” the “feminist” choice you are a “bad feminist.” It all ties into prescriptive feminism and the idea that it is not only ok but obligatory to tell other women what to do when they are doing something which you disagree with.
For women with disabilities, this is extremely dangerous. Given that one of the core values of feminism is bodily autonomy, it is shocking and very upsetting to see feminists promoting denial of bodily autonomy for disabled women. The inherent conflict here seems lost upon many mainstream feminists, and when they are challenged on it, the pushback can sometimes be quite extreme.
Here’s the thing.
I can make an informed choice.
I can research a situation, I can weigh the pros and cons. I can think about the impact which various choices will have on me personally. I can think about what I need to do to meet my needs and to take care of myself. And, considering all of this information, I can make a decision about what I want to do and how I want to handle the situation. When it comes to medical care in particular, I think I know a little bit more about my situation and my body than other people, and I can in fact be trusted to do the right thing, for me. I can even, yes, consider the cultural context of my choices.
To tell me otherwise is to deny me agency. To tell me that a choice I am making is “antifeminist” or “not good for you” is to tell me that I am a foolish clueless person who should not be allowed to make choices for myself. Demanding that I justify my choices is invasive, rude, and inappropriate. I don’t demand to know why other people do or do not do something. I trust them to make their own decisions, based on their experience as unique individuals.
If people ask me for information or thoughts while they are making choices, I may offer it, although I try to structure it carefully to make it clear that I am not speaking for them or prescribing any course of action. But if my input has not been requested, I don’t give it.
It is not appropriate to tell women that they should undergo unnecessary, invasive, and sometimes harmful medical procedures “for their own good.” It is not appropriate to tell women that all bodies are the same and that therefore there’s only one way to take care of them. It is not appropriate to tell women that they cannot make informed, considered, thoughtful choices. It is not appropriate to tell women that there’s only one kind of feminism and only one way to be feminist. Or that a specific choice is always inherently antifeminist, no matter what.
I may choose a different thing for myself than you might choose for yourself. You might opt to respond to things differently than I do. But that does not mean that a woman’s personal decision about something like, say, cancer treatment is invalid. Or that she is “stupid” for not choosing what I would have done. Or that she’s “not feminist” because she did something I disagree with (or even that her individual choice is “antifeminist” because I don’t like it, even if I grudgingly recognize that she might be feminist despite that).
I can make an informed choice. You can make an informed choice. Can we trust each other to do that, and move on to more important things than policing each other?