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

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.