We like a good debate in our house, we do. At least that’s what I like to think they are. Debates.
In truth, they mainly consist of me ranting about issues such as why we still have Page 3 in a national ‘news’ paper, or the general imbalance in our media that means we still report largely on what women wear and what men do. Or why Gillian Anderson spent a whole, breathy series of The Fallen playing a serious lead role whilst tottering around in white silk shirts and impossibly high heels. Why can’t we have detective heroines like the Scandinavians? At least D.I Lund’s make-up free face and ever-present fairisle was practical for a murder investigation…
You get the (slightly crazed) picture.
Most often, Hubby nods noncommittally and tries to avoid eye contact, or else zones me out whilst channel-hopping through old episodes of Top Gear, but occasionally he decides to engage me in this perilous argument. On one such day – just to antagonise me – Hubby points out that it’s often women’s magazines – and therefore surely the demand of women themselves – that is providing most of the fuel to this anti-feminist fire. Sure, men’s mags might inappropriately sexualise women, but that’s to be expected (apparently – but that’s another argument). And the balance of the mainstream media / society as a whole definitely isn’t always right either, but let’s face it – it’s you women that are the worst culprits when it comes to trivialising each other’s achievements and fixating on Gwynnie’s skincare routine or the Duchess of Cambridge’s latest Reiss triumph.
And I have to admit, he has a point.
You only have to walk into a newsagent to see row upon row of women’s magazines, stuffed full of the latest pics of some celeb looking flabby on a beach or being derided for popping to the shops in joggers. What Amy Adams wore to the Golden Globes. Mila Kunis’ impressive post-baby weight loss. Which can sadly only mean one thing – these types of headlines sell. To a mainly female market.
It’s sad because in fixating on the appearance and the superficial, we forget that all these women are actually famous for things other than what they wear or what they weigh. Professional musicians. Actresses. Fashion designers. Royalty. Women at the top of their game. And rather than celebrating those achievements and cheering each other on, we – us women – want to talk about their appearance.
Recently, the more general feminism-and-the-media type debates have moved onto more specific discussion around the issue of equality in sport – as provoked by Glamour magazine’s latest campaign ‘Say no to Sexism’– and not least around the subject of sportswomen themselves being happy to ‘put it out there’ when it suits them.
It was case in point this weekend when Hubby picked up a copy of Forever Sports magazine and chucked it at me. ‘Look at this,’ he said (almost too gleefully) ‘helping your equality in sport cause do you think?’
I looked down at the article in his hand – a full page spread, complete with photos (of course) of the Warwick University Women’s Rowing Team and their nude fundraising calender. Eek. What to do? What to think?
On the one hand, I have to admit, these are beautiful, tasteful images of proudly un-photoshopped women. A zillion times better a role model than Kim Kardashian’s photoshopped arse or Beyonce’s dubiously thinned thighs. They are strong and attractive and fit. But still. It’s a women’s rowing team, featured in a sports magazine not because of what they’ve achieved, but because they’re butt naked. And pretty.
Now I do appreciate that a) it was a fundraising calender and that b) criticising any women (or group of women’s) decision about what to do with their bodies within an argument about feminism is in itself inherently sticky. There are those who will argue that it is our right as women to be able to look beautiful, to feel beautiful, to do with our bodies as we wish. That the progress we’ve made in the last hundred years – the journey through times when we were unable to vote or have an opinion or enjoy our bodies – was for just this sort of thing. Our much fought-for freedom to have as much right as men to be liberated and unconstrained by what society expects from us. And that is of course all right and proper and true. Sort-of.
Sort-of, because looking and feeling beautiful – within yourself and for yourself – is a completely different thing from plastering that (naked) beauty all over social media or a magazine to prove it. I know, it’s hard to remember a time when private and public were not co-joined twins, when something existed in it’s own right as an un-digitised un-captured-forever moment between you and yours, but there it is.
Sort-of, because arguing for our right to express ourselves as we wish, with no boundaries or restrictions, assumes that we are starting from a level playing field of equality already (which we most definitely are not) and that our actions are not further damaging the cause for which we are purporting to be working. Women are still an oppressed majority in many parts of the world, unable to work or drive or go to school. Even here in the UK, women are still more likely to be paid less, to be passed over for promotion, to experience sexism in their every day lives and work environments. Whatever we’d like to hope or believe are our freedoms, the harsh reality is that things aren’t equal yet. We are still part of a society – and a media system – that places looks at the top of the pile for women. And when we collude with that trivialisation and celebration of the external – whether it’s through consuming or supplying – there is an argument that we are simply reinforcing the stereotypes that are already out there and making it harder for ourselves to achieve the equality we say we want.
And because really – is that all it boils down to? All that campaigning and fighting and struggling – for sex? To be able to pose on the front of a lad’s mag or post another belfie on instagram. Was that really what Emily Davison had in mind when she threw herself under the king’s horse? Is that really freedom and equality? Not for me.
It can be painful to admit it, but perhaps sometimes, in our desire to demonstrate just how free and unconstrained we are, we actually tie ourselves further in to what has always been expected of us. Perhaps sometimes, we kid ourselves that the exposure is worth it. That in the name of profile-raising or fund-raising, the end justifies the means.
But at the end of the day, if we want equality in sport – or in any other walk of life – if we want to be valued for our race times, our academic achievements, our art – and not just for having pert breasts and a pretty face, maybe it’s time we stopped playing into the hands of all those prejudices and unbalances. Perhaps it’s time we started showcasing – and celebrating – our achievements in public, and saving the naked belfies for the bedroom.
PS: Check out Sport England’s new ‘This Girl Can’ campaign for a refreshing look at normal, everyday girlies of all shapes and ages getting hot and sweaty in the gym, on the trail, in the pool. Love it!