Im a fan of the acclaimed young writer known as the Slumflower. But her sexual creed of exploitation appals me, says Guardian columnist Zoe Williams
A couple of years ago, the feminist society of Deptford Green secondary school convened a conference. It was there that I met Chidera Eggerue: aka the Slumflower, author of What a Time to be Alone, hashtagger of the #saggyboobsmatter movement. She was a remarkable woman. I dont want to call her a remarkable young woman, even though she was 23 at the time: young is such a modifier and she would have been remarkable at any age.
Her broad message was one of body positivity: if you love yourself and your shape, nobody can shame you. She built what I thought was a brisk, convincing and quite dispiriting picture of the various problems her generation faces: late capitalist consumerism combined with intense pressure to conform physically you must be this shape, to fit into this item, to look this good on Instagram while the new misogyny of the alt-right built an army of enforcers, angry men happy to roam the internet looking for any woman who might look happy with herself, to tell her about the state of her upper arms. And perhaps some men took that corrosive body-pedantry into their relationships and made women feel rubbish about themselves in real life, but the Slumflowers message love yourself, and that is your suit of armour was much more important and universal than relationship advice, and spoke powerfully to girls who were ages away from their first shitty boyfriend, as well as enlighteningly to women who were ages from being able to remember him.
Eggerue did a TED talk and guest-edited the Today programme. She has a quarter of a million Instagram followers, and is plainly a force for inspiration. But fast-forward to now, the message has changed. Like a mash-up of Naomi Wolf and early-era Beyonc, she has taken a female self-sufficiency narrative and spliced it with a coquettish 1950s individualism, to create something appalling, in my view a creed of exploitation. Initially I thought someone had hacked her Twitter feed: If he says he loves you, and you are still paying your own bills, you settled for a roommate. It got uglier: Men shouldnt open their useless mouths to invite me anywhere if they are not arranging my (luxe) travel and covering my Michelin star meal, plus some money (1k) in a brown envelope to thank me for donating my time to them that I could have spent at home relaxing.
A new voice of feminism, in short, had turned into something I found anti-feminist, anti-humanist, anti-intimacy, anti-everything I care about. The idea that you can address the objectification of women by abasing men you want to measure us by the pound? Make sure you can afford to is a race to the bottom. It goes against every element of the feminism I understand, in which women aspire not to be kept by men, but to have agency and self-determination and the ability to keep themselves. Women dont present their sexuality as a commodity that only the rich man deserves, because they have sexual destinies of their own, which cannot be bought or sold, can only be realised or thwarted. Above all, my feminism doesnt even exist without the presumption that all human beings are infinitely precious, infinitely vulnerable, that none of us could withstand the harshness of this worldview, in which we all use each other furiously until everybodys spent.
On Twitter, an army of people despaired that this self-created persona of self-love had spilt over into destructive narcissism, and others disagreed with them, and it was all getting quite blocky and heated, so I did what any sensible person does when an intra-feminist battle blows up, which was to get the hell out of there.The taxonomies of a persons feminism are specific to ones age, race and class, which doesnt just mean some of us havent read Hannah Arendt and some havent read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; it means all our red lines, all our red rags, are different. The idea that it would ever be a feminist act to commodify your own sexuality is more than just illogical to me, it is traitorous. If each of us has a different route into feminism, a different intellectual lineage, then we all have different feminist priorities. But for some reason, variety hasnt encouraged pluralism, and what we see instead is a battle over orthodoxies that is humourless by definition.
With humour gone, were short on tolerance of hyperbole, and indulgence of youth. Young people take extreme positions. I remember going on a panel to argue that contraception was the most important medical development there ever was, even though one of the other categories was evidence-based medicine. But contraception wouldnt exist without an evidence base, my oppugner said mildly, and I replied, Screw you! Screw the patriarchy.
Mirthlessness brings a peculiar tone-deafness, so that we cant, intergenerationally, tell when someone else is joking, sincere, ironic or deadly serious. The Slumflower might be kidding; or she might be painting an elaborate hall of mirrors about the kind of person who thinks a woman might be thinking things like that about a man. In the aftermath of International Womens Day, I merely point out that its not all celebration and vagina-hats and consensus. It is hard work keeping a movement together: if youre not riven with self-doubt, frustration, confusion, rage, empathy, bafflement and the weight of your own ignorance most of the time, youre probably not doing it right.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
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