India Willoughby’s entitlement is socialized, not innate

India Willoughby
India Willoughby

India Willoughby was hailed as groundbreaking when the journalist became the first trans-identified presenter to host an all-female UK talk show. Willoughby, 51, previously known as Jonathan, joined Loose Women last month alongside three female hosts and made news yet again after appearing on BBC’s Woman’s Hour last week.

In an op-ed published on Friday, Willoughby explained that individuals who transition are not having a “sex change,” but rather are “changing our bodies to match the gender we have always been.” Willoughby adds, “I don’t consider myself as ever having been male.”

This statement strikes me as odd, considering the presenter’s response to a recent controversy surrounding The Dorchester’s dress code. The luxury London hotel demands female employees always wear full makeup, get manicures, and shave their legs “even if wearing tights.”

Most responded with anger at these clearly sexist standards, imposed despite the fact that many employees only make £9 an hour (regular manicures are not cheap)! One anonymous employee said:

“It is disgusting. This list is like something out of the dark ages, and downright offensive.”

Policies like this overtly say that women are primarily decorative. Even to survive, we are expected to be esthetically pleasing in a feminized way — to present ourselves in a way that protects men from being confronted by our vulgar humanness.

But on BBC’s Woman’s Hour, Willoughby supported the dress code, implying that women who don’t rid themselves of body hair are somehow “unclean.” On Friday, the presenter told host Jenni Murray:

“I think if you’ve got a job in a five-star luxury hotel as a female or a man then certain grooming standards are expected, and I think for women the expectation is that you do look clean. Personally, I wouldn’t like to be served by someone with hairy legs, grubby nails, dishevelled hair and looking a bit worse for wear. I think it’s fair enough.”

When Murray asked, “What would have been your reaction to being required to shave your legs when living as a man,” Willoughby was aghast, responding:

“What a bizarre question, Jenni! Why would I shave my legs when I was living as a man?”

But acknowledging that there are different expectations of women and men, in terms of their outward appearance, seems to contradict Willoughby’s understanding of gender.

Earlier in the show, Murray asked Willoughby, “How confident were you taking a place on Loose Women, discussing women’s issues?” Willoughby responded confidently, “Fine — no problem whatsover,” and went on to explain, “My gender has always been female” because “gender is rooted in the brain.”

But if indeed gender is innate — “rooted in the brain” — wouldn’t Willoughby have been intrinsically drawn to shave his legs when living as Jonathan? If gender is not simply an invention, something learned, and something we are socialized into, but rather something internal and unchangeable, leg shaving is something Willoughby would have theoretically been born into.

“I’m not a transwoman,” Willoughby tells Murray, “I’m a woman.” But the question remains: Is this true because of inherent desire to shave? Because of a choice to present oneself in a feminized way, acceptable to the male gaze? According to Willoughby, womanhood has nothing to do either with physical bodies or with socialization, so what’s left besides sexist and superficial presentations?

The misogyny in Willoughby’s assertion that women should fulfill sexist expectations (and let’s be honest — these expectations exist because men prefer it, not because women love shaving their legs daily) is clear, but also extends beyond that. Does one only become a woman once we meet these superficial standards? Willoughby implies it would have been ridiculous for anyone to expect him to have shaved his legs as Jonathan (despite claiming to have always been female), meaning it was only with the decision to become “India” (i.e. to live as a woman) that femininity became necessary. So, is gender real and unchangeable or is it simply an idea — a sexist social expectation?

Willoughby says gender is not a choice, but how is it, in that case, that the presenter managed to avoid all the social expectations, sexism, and misogyny imposed on women for his 50 years living as a man, that no female in history has managed to escape?

To be clear, I don’t believe gender is a choice nor do I believe it is “in the brain.” Gender, under patriarchy, is imposed on people in a particular way, depending on whether they are born male or female. Gender ensures women live as part of a subordinate class of people, whereas men join the dominant class. Willoughby’s assertions that gender is “in the brain” completely contradict the reality of sexism, as it impacts women and girls throughout their lives.

It’s truly unfortunate that Willoughby had no problem taking a position on an all-female panel, despite the fact that the presenter seems to have no clue or concern for the way sexism operates. That Murray had to explain why double-standards around body hair and shaving, for example, have been the subject of political debate for some time now, only goes to show how unqualified Willoughby is as a participant in these conversations. Murray points this out, asking, “Is that something you’re not really aware of because this is something you’ve come to fairly recently?”

Willoughby responds by calling Murray “hostile” to trans, as though the fact that Willoughby lived as a man for 50 years and was not obligated to shave his legs is completely irrelevant. As though implying women are dirty if they don’t shave their legs isn’t “hostile.”

While sexist gender roles have perhaps caused Willoughby some internal strife (though Willoughby explains this suffering as having been rooted in “dysphoria”), it’s clear the journalist does not at all understand how gender harms women on a systemic level.

Another guest panelist on Woman’s Hour, Eleanor Mills, is forced to explain, angrily:

“The point is that, as a woman you are expected to reach higher standards in your presentation because the world objectifies you in a female form. And that’s a really crucial part of growing up as a female…”

Perhaps Willoughby should have felt some discomfort at taking a place on an all-woman panel, something that remains sadly revolutionary today, considering our long history of male dominated media. Willoughby undoubtedly benefited from male privilege throughout his journalism career as Jonathan, but didn’t think twice about speaking about the sexism women experience dismissively, as an expert. Despite Willoughby’s insistence that gender is something we are born with, I have a strong suspicion the entitlement exhibited here is socialized, not innate.
Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Hannah

    As if we needed more proof that transgenderism is about sexist stereotypes and roles -_-

  • anne cameron

    How nice… to have your cake and eat it, too. And get paid by the BBC in the bargain! Choice!

  • DeColonise

    These males are all over the place in making zero sense. I can’t understand how so much of mainstream society can give a pass to transgender politics/identity. They contradict themselves all the time and change up the rules as they go along.
    It’s more and more obvious that besides a few trans people (who I truly believe have severe dysphoria and not having easy lives to live with themselves) its mostly a fetish for these males.

    • Si Llage

      It’s a modern freak show and freak shows have always pulled in viewer eyes.

  • therealcie

    I don’t care if a person is man or woman, cis or trans, if you say that women need to shave their legs to appear clean but don’t feel that a man with unshorn legs is unclean, you are applying a double standard. Ms. Willoughby seems utterly unaware that this is a blatant double standard. She also appears to have some fairly classist ideals.
    Trans people who come from upper class backgrounds don’t suffer in the ways that those who come from working class backgrounds do. They tend to receive a fair bit of support. It seems that most of the trans people postulating that anything relating to women’s reproductive health as being “hostile to trans” are from middle and upper class backgrounds. The trans people that I’ve communicated with from working class backgrounds don’t tend to adhere to such ideas. They just want to be treated with common decency.

    • Resse

      Agreed, treating people with common courtesy and respect is not a matter of agreeing with them on absolutely everything. If a workplace says the male employees must shave their breads that is not sexism because of the context of gender dynamics where women move through the world with a lot more scrutiny and expectations imposed upon them by the patriarchy to keep them subordinate, I agree with that but I also think that some gender expectations are value neutral, I mean femininity shouldn’t be expected from all women all the time, that’s oppressive but femininity in it’s self is not and need not be devalued but I guess the problem with “Women must shave their legs but not men” despite the fact we both have hairy legs, is the performantive aspect of femininity which I can understand as oppressive the same way adherence to masculinity can also oppressive when taken to an extreme, that’s why we have the concept of toxic masculinity.

      • Wren

        Unfortunately, femininity = fuckability. There’s no way around this, they cannot be separated, and it is absolutely not the same thing as asking a man to shave. I don’t think the expectation of women looking fuckable for the male gaze should be equated to men suffering from small bicep syndrome. Bye bye.

      • Cassandra

        “…which I can understand as oppressive the same way adherence to masculinity can also oppressive when taken to an extreme, that’s why we have the concept of toxic masculinity.”

        Um, no. That’s not what the concept of toxic masculinity is about. At all. You’re embarrassing yourself.

    • Wombat

      “I don’t care if a person is man or woman, cis or trans, if you say that
      women need to shave their legs to appear clean but don’t feel that a man
      with unshorn legs is unclean, you are applying a double standard”.

      Precisely this.

  • Monsieur Zoidberg

    Willoughby responds by calling Murray “hostile” to trans

    This every single time. If you don’t agree with them on everything (scientific or not, usually not), you’re transphobic.

    And what the Hell does a 50 year old man who recently transitioned know about being a woman besides all the sexist stereotypes he learned as a man? Oh — from his female brain? He knows legitimate studies don’t support that, right? Shit, this world is backwards…

    • Marla

      This whole female brain strikes me as being nothing more than paradigm idealism concocted by trans-men of how biological female should act, dress, look to their level of education and salary because, you know they’ve “been there” when they started wearing dresses. Claiming that biology has somehow failed them, they become overnight dictators of feminism. Rape, harassment, abuse, violence that women are more susceptible to experiencing just get in the way when the real issues are (unwanted) body hair. If Willoughby kept his/her/whatever thoughts on 5 star hotel servers as a hygienic and spoke on this issue as a public health concern instead of some bizarre feminist issue I might be inclined to agree with him/whatever/her.

      And this is a male brain mindset. For example, when I first graduated from college I worked a job in a extremely conservative environment where male entitlement was the mainstay. As part of the dress code, I was told “no tight-fitting clothing (such as body-con dresses), no short dresses, no make-up, no heels, no boots, no leather attire, no jewelry (except for a watch), no non-conversational eye contact with counterpart male employees…” There was a litany of this patriarchy puritanical shit simply because management (also runs by males) could not “protect me” on the basis that my style (such as it is) could be misconstrued some way.

      Needlessly to say, I didn’t work there very long but I bring it up because the only way I got around it was to go on Christian conversation dress sites and order my clothes from them and show up to work dressed more or less like a pic-nic table cloth – from the 18th century. And yes, I was written up for that, too you see, because I was “mocking” their ideal dress code. Willoughby, no matter how feminist he/she whatever thinks she/he is comes across as being no different. There is no trans-male to overnight female brain. No amount of dresses or feminine literature is going to rewire the gender gray matter regardless of how they see biology cheating them. Willoughby is another negative tool spewing out male dictatorial propaganda which is really cloaked misogyny under the guise of feminism.

      • susannunes

        The convoluted nonsense of “brain sex” is a ruse to cover up the fact these dudes are sexual fetishists and are trying to con the rest of us that they simply can’t help it.

      • Resse

        I like your comment but what does it mean to say “No amount of dresses or feminine literature is going to rewire the gender gray matter”

  • Not only do Transwomen think women’s legs should be clean shaven, they think women’s wombs are gross and they can do better with artificial wombs and uterus implants. But Transwomen don’t have a right to be pregnant at all.

  • Rachael

    The way transwomen like this behave reminds me of a brief moment in my early teens when my peers and I discovered shaving, eyebrow plucking etc. It was briefly “fun”, probably because it was new and we were too young and naive to realise the weight of expectation that was attached to those tasks. Willoughby has the luxury of playing at dress-up, of pretending to be a woman using whatever stereotypical, innately sexist tools he wishes to try and pass. It’s simple why he fails to comprehend the enormity behind his words and his actions: because they have never and will never apply to him.

    • Tired feminist

      Exactly. Femininity performance is only “fun” when you look at it from outside. When I was 3 or 4 years old I was fascinated by my mother’s femininity rituals. I tried on her high-heeled shoes and her makeup and her clothes (I think many little children do this) and had genuine fun at it. Because I knew it was a play and five minutes later I was back in my child outfit and my flat shoes (thanks god my mom was savvy enough to avoid buying me too adult-looking clothes). When I reached puberty and femininity performance gradually became an expectation and the pressure to conform to it increased drastically, it gradually ceased to be fun. I think males who perform femininity might experience some similar kind of fun, the fun of knowing it’s all a game.

    • Sabine

      Absolutely.

  • Cassandra

    Great analysis, Meghan. It’s so obvious yet here we are…

  • cday881@gmail.com

    I suspect that the hotel’s appearance policy also states that men may (must) wear pants while women must wear skirts/dresses/shorts. Just a guess.

    • Pe Nelope Kay Greenhough

      yeah – like in the clubs and bars where women are expected to wear ‘uniforms’ for the male gaze and sexual satisfaction of male clients. Uniforms which render women vulnerable to attack, prevent them running away, cannot be worn in public.. yet the male staff are respected enough to be togged out in formal menswear and get paid more. the female staff are expected to top up their wages with tips commensurate with whatever male sexual approval they can generate. these same women are often desperately trying to manage the consequences of the male orgasm – ie. children. something women can never rely on men to do is stand by the consequences of their actions. its women who do that. its women who are damned if they do damned if they dont. men never have to even consider what unwanted pregnancy could do to their bodies, lives and careers. no man has ever had to go to a job interview wondering if his biology will row him out of a job.

  • Hierophant2

    Your comment makes no sense. Gender is a social construct therefore women following gender beauty standards are doing it because of an innate evolutionary trait? Which one is it? Is gender a social construct or is it hard-coded in the brain? It can’t be both.

    Women follow beauty standards because they are forced to do so in order to be taken seriously. Some women don’t. If the explanation was evolutionary, then all women would do it (unless you think there are somehow evolutionary exceptions to gender). The constructionist explanation has no such problem.

    • Resse

      What I meant to say is that human adornment is a universal trait for women as well as for men and it is incorrect to construe it as a purely patriarchal invention and this simple point isn’t incompatible with the notion of gender as a oppressive concept, where I differ with the commenters on here is that I don’t think it necessarily has to be.

      • Hierophant2

        You’re moving the goalposts there, buddy. “Human adornment” as a general concept doesn’t have anything to do with specific beauty standards belonging to one specific culture. Humans have adorned themselves for wildly different reasons throughout history, and beauty standards is only one of those reasons. So what does your point have to do with, say, wearing high heels, which do not exist in most cultures?

        It is not “incorrect” to construe beauty standards as being patriarchal in nature, because they are. Beauty standards are set by men to impose femininity on women and to differentiate between masculinity and femininity. Women wear high heels in order to be feminine (and they are feminine because they make women more vulnerable and makes it harder for women to walk) and thereby get more respect and admiration, and men don’t wear high heels in order to differentiate themselves from women and their inferior status.

      • Tired feminist

        LOL. You’re clearly not a woman.

    • ptittle

      I don’t agree that women follow beauty standards because they are forced to do so in order to be taken seriously. Men don’t take women seriously however they look. If a woman is ‘beautiful’, men pay more attention to her, yes, but that’s not the same as being taken seriously. Perhaps the best we can say is that women who follow beauty standards are taken seriously AS A SEXUAL OBJECT.

      We can also say women who follow beauty standards are not ostracized or insulted as often. Perhaps. Here again, merely being female is reason for insult.

  • Tired feminist

    Gender is neither an “identity” not a “choice”, it’s a social hierarchy.

    But hey, you don’t believe in patriarchy, so why am I even bothering.

  • Deborah Hitchens

    I Got blocked by Willoughby immediately after leaving this comment on twitter
    Oh I hate twitter and their character limit!. : ( No not that one.
    this one : )
    “Women need2hav a hang up abt havin hairy legs

    how els can men sel their hair removin products”..
    Which honestly took me by surprise and I didn’t think that comment would cause that reaction?

    You see we want to scrutinise what the trans people are saying and question it to clarify it in our own minds but they don’t appear to want to explain it or be questioned on it, it seems they expect us to just accept their word they are females and they ask “Why are you making such a fuss over nothing”

    Well when there are literally thousands of death threats coming from the trans community directed specifically at women who dare to question them, everything is not as fine in the garden as they are trying to make out
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b08688b5554b3da98187083a5af721a84b23bddc48034a79c936baa8b69d3343.jpg

  • Melanie

    The point is that girls and women are pressured into conforming to ‘feminine’ stereotypes and roles precisely because they’re girls and women, while transwomen claim that these stereotypes and roles are literally what make them women. There’s a big difference between these two scenarios. One is an example of sexism and oppression. The other is a reinforcement of it.

  • Wren

    “Women must shave their legs but not men” despite the fact we both have hairy legs, is the performantive aspect of femininity which I can
    understand as oppressive the same way adherence to masculinity can also oppressive when taken to an extreme, that’s why we have the concept of toxic masculinity.”

    I think my reading skills are just fine.

  • Tired feminist

    Femininity IS irredeemably bad. You don’t seem to understand what femininity is.

  • Tired feminist

    HAHAHAHA gotta love how you think we don’t know you’re trolling.

  • cday881@gmail.com

    by reproductive strategy is that it is in the interest of women to make themselves as attractive as possible to males from a evolutionary perspective

    But should women adopt an evolutionary perspective?

  • Cassandra

    “…I am just skeptical of the idea no women anywhere would choose to wear lipstick unless “socialized” to by a sexist patriachial beauty standard, pretty sure make up and jewlery is present in every society on earth including the traditional matriarchal ones.”

    Where would anyone get the idea to where lipstick in the first place? You seem to have this belief that women would naturally gravitate toward putting colored goo on their lips. Hey, I totally put colored goo on my lips, and I was totally socialized to. People adorning themselves is socialized.

    You are definitely male.

  • Sabine

    Sooooooooooo true!!! I really hope you are right about the ideology…it seems to be getting worse to me.

  • Pe Nelope Kay Greenhough

    .. and how did he get to be a journalist without basic spelling and grammar?

  • Pe Nelope Kay Greenhough

    .. Like jenner and maloney he’s an out and out autogynephile. he’s virtually erased his wife and son after years of betraying them and now he is publicly displaying his paraphilia because thats all part of the thrill.. getting a free pass on his exhibitionism and voyeurism, being ‘one of the girls’ , using unwitting women who are trying to be inclusive as his narcissistic masturbatory supply and getting away with it.
    i’d be MUCH more interested to hear what his wife and son have got to say in private..
    Men like willoughby are creepy as all hell, intent on making everyone play along.. those Loose Women surely to god dont REALLY believe he’s a woman, that he has somehow changed sex..do they ? i suspect they are just playing along and patronising him, encouraging him to think he is something that can clearly never, ever be i dont think thats a kind thing to do .
    i dont get why we are supposed to ignore the evidence of our own eyes, our lived intimate experience of relationships with trans, and learned fear and suspicion from close association with biologically male Agp transgenders – women like us are not being heard, we are being vilified because we are familiar with the instantly recognisable Agp behaviour patterns of men like willoughby, jenner and maloney and are being asked to ignore our instinctive fear and gut feelings. We’ve also to relinquish sex specific language so we cannot discuss our own trans-related trauma without being accused of thought crimes, called ridiculous, made-up names and silenced with vile threats… Women are required to move over so that biologically male snowflakes can take womens places in sport, school and college scholarships, bursaries,awards, prizes, dorms and camps, hospitals, housing, refuges, rape centers and prisons and any facility provided for womens safety. transactivists interest in violating the boundaries of female privacy and safety and the sweeping away of womens protections to allow for self-declared gender identity is NOT supported by any evidence of widespread harm to transgender individuals, yet there are hundreds if not thousands of confirmed instances of self-identified ‘trans women’ sexually and violently assaulting women in what are intended to be safe, sex-segregated spaces.
    I would love to be a fly on the Loose Womens green-room wall in willoughbys absence.

  • anne

    In many parts of the world, men prefer hairy women because they believe they are “better in bed”. Incidentally, hairiness in women can be associated with increased testosterone and higher sex drive. Excessive grooming as well as obsessive pursuit of thinness has nothing to do with mating strategies (although this bit got conflated by making 90%+ of male population addicted to pornography). It is a patriarchal and capitalist strategy to devalue women so that they become insecure and silent, make them smaller so they can occupy less space, make them busy with mindless tasks on top of the free labour they are already forced to provide and bankrupt them financially by forcing them to spend money they do get on things that serve nothing more than male gaze. All this is so that they can’t successfully organise to combat male violence.