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Oh, how I loathe that place.
The shop that staunchly eschews tidiness and teaches its staff that rehanging discarded dresses is an exercise in futility. As is disentangling the massive knot of infinity that was once the necklace section.
The tables, vomitous with nylon and elastic; a firey, Hadean explosion of captioned knickers and cutesy animals.
The tills, a scattershot assault of One Direction masks, flavoured Vaseline and E numbers, as if a teenage girl has tipped the contents of her life upside down and thrown them every which way.
And what of the inexplicable but seemingly infinite stream of people carting suitcases behind them with the speed and emotional encumbrance of a funeral march? I doubt many people enter with the intention of buying a suitcase but, with the astonishment of post-automatism, arrive home to find they have done just that (I think this is what would happen if the kids in The Village of The Damned were hell bent on package holidays rather than the decimation of their hosts).
Now, I should really have prefaced this by stating that I am neither misanthrope, fashion guru or clothing snob, although Primark allows me to swerve grandiosely close to all three. I do have a horrible feeling (garnered largely from the fact I enter Topshop and either peer at price tags, sucking air through my clenched teeth, or hold items of clothing at varying angles in order to work out which way up they go) that I’ve somehow passed into that hinterland beyond fashion.
I’m not on higher ground here. I often buy cheap things from corduroy-scented vintage shops: shirts adorned with mystery pen stains and dresses weeping with the cloy of mothballs. I have learnt to strategically position my arm, or winch my skirt up to just the right side of decency, in order to hide an enigmatic scorch mark, or hastily stitched hole. I also think that, fashion wise, the 80s were a Good Thing.
So of course there is nothing wrong with mass produced fashion ephemera. It’s affordable, accessible, inclusive. It does it’s job well enough.
I just hate Primark.
And I think Primark reciprocates in kind, to womankind.
You see, I went there for the wincingly non-essential reason that they sell cheap, tight pants. A combination of regularly running in lycra and the spectre-like last vestiges of an eating disorder mean I, with more regularity than I would like, experience the Phantom Wobble. No gossamer-like delicacies will adorn my rear whilst I cart around the dead weight of re-imagined corporeality.
And Primark seems to cater so beautifully for every conceivable bodily neurosis. There is a whole section dedicated to flattening out and squeezing in the flesh: pants, tights, leggings, tops, whole body suits. It’s the cultural equivalent to a barbed wire corset; an exercise in self-flagellation, diminishment and conformity.
Now it’s appalling enough that women of any size feel the need to truss up parts of their flesh whilst forcing out others but the fact you can buy hold in pants and leggings in size 6 is unfathomable. To conceive of a world in which we are telling women, some with the body weight of a child, that they need to bandage up their (presumably imagined) excesses is to conceive of a world in which women’s bodies are still coerced and controlled. It’s pretty far from an iron girdle, granted, but nonetheless serves to increase an oppressive cultural roar that seeks to shame women into hating their own flesh.
Think on it; hold-in high waisted pants in size 6. What exactly are we holding in here? The intestines after a zombie attack or particularly nasty hunting accident? (And for the record, I don’t wear hold in pants. Just tight pants. There’s a subtle yet probably indeterminable difference, so I’m not at all complicit or culpable in any of this, OK?).
It’s entirely possible Primark hates men whilst hating women too. From what I’ve seen most of the items on offer would make even the most erudite feminist ally look like either; a brain dead tosser or a card-carrying, t-shirt wearing misogynist. Hey guys! You can wear a torso sized espousal of the objectification of women! Why merely buy magazines that reduce women’s achievements and relevance to their breasts or blow job giving abilities? You can now, quite literally, walk around endorsing this view all day long! I also once saw a young man wearing a Primark sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Witness the Fitness’. This was surely only designed to make the wearer seem like an arrogant, assonance-loving fool. All I wanted to witness was someone de-robe him of this monstrosity with a pair of garden shears.
I realise that poking fun at Primark, it’s underwear section and dubious interpretations of acceptable daywear is like breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. Yet something more serious lies within the scathing, something that perhaps in its relative newness, in it’s relative novelty, makes me recoil. I have never wanted to commit an act of destruction in a public place since I was a teenage anorexic, wandering around Woolworths in my quiet madness, wanting to smash up all the Easter eggs I wouldn’t let myself have.
Seeing Primark’s ‘Bootylicious pants’ nearly changed all that.
The Bootylicious pants, for the enviably uninitiated, are pants padded with silicone, to give a woman that much-needed bum enhancement she was not previously aware she needed. It is seemingly not enough that we have poked and prodded and shaved and moulded ourselves, sometimes almost out of existence. We can now, along with detachable breasts, have detachable bums, like human dolls, which is of course the only logical response to the wildly vacillating perception of feminine beauty and acceptability.
I’m not sure what distinguishes a bum-enhancing kind of day from any other but there it is. Maybe on a Wednesday, during that mid-week spell of inertia, slipping on a pair of Bootylicious pants gives you the literal and psychological boost required to scrape your way through to Friday. Perhaps it’s just eroticised power dressing, the 21st century version of the shoulder pad. Or maybe, after you’ve starved your posterior into non-existence there’s a retractibility of sorts. A redemption. There’s a padded piece of nylon for the days you miss not feeling an excoriating pain as your coccyx grinds unforgivingly into any solid surface you sit on. See? You CAN have it both ways; you can diminish and enlarge at whim.
The name of the pants, equally, bothered me. ‘Bootylicious’ is of course more than a tacit nod to Beyonce, which is a nod to a form of female bodily empowerment, which is often re-communicated through the medium of the hypersexualised caricature of the Black woman. This eroticising of the ‘exotic’ and the Othering of certain women’s bodies, often under the guise of empowerment, is troubling.
Of course we could, if we ignored all other peripheral information, see the mainstream appropriation and projection of a stereotypical characteristic as a positive. And anyway, the Anglo Saxon arse of Pippa Middleton is being credited with the surge in desire for strap-on bottoms. Primark just presented it with a sledgehammer is all. So that’s OK, then?
Well, not really, no. It still bothers me, and is indicative of the compartmentalisation of women’s bodies; the representation of the female form as a constellation of sexual signifiers. It was once and always the breasts but I’m wondering if the bottom has become the most objectified, the most relevant signifier of sexuality and femininity.
A reliably crass article in The Sun once road tested these padded pants. They were deemed as good for hailing cabs but not so good for keeping your presumably sexually rabid colleagues focussed on their work. I’ve never hailed a cab with my arse but I have helpfully complied a short list of other uses for the Bootylicious pants:
- Sitting at cold bus stops for protracted periods of time.
- Reassuring your grandmother that you will never, ever get piles.
- Protecting your posterior from the pincer-like attentions of inebriated morons.
I have, fleetingly or doggedly, been many things. Smoker. Student. Gymnast. Covered in piercings. Depressive. Till bunny. Bedroom wall consuming Take That fan. Unremittingly unlucky. Most of these would gradually chip away, varnish-like, remaining only in the remember-when. Formative years are marked by these shifting tendencies, these in-hindsight-wincing proclivities, that ultimately serve no purpose but to remind you that youth is a funny thing, and isn’t it so much better now you have your head screwed on the right way round? Yet one seems to stick. Not the thing itself, probably not even its associated identity, but those connotations and signifiers that naturally attach themselves, generating unqualified heat and adding an unasked-for dimension to the choices I make.
I am referring to the fact I suffered, protractedly, with anorexia. For a while, I suppose, this filled enough of my waking thoughts and straddled a sufficient span of years to be considered the thing I was. Or was it the thing I had? I suppose in some ways anorexia collapses the distinction between sufferer and illness: you are so very definitely, so very visibly, that which you suffer. I always struggle with the phraseology, the verb choice, around eating disorders: one grammatical decision over another can cause connotations, or give that otherworldly, mythologising impression I want to very much veer away from. So I’ll put it succinctly. I’ll truncate it so it only sounds as it was. I starved myself and caused myself a lot of pain and damage. I made everyone angry and worried and lost a hell of a lot more than weight in the process. And now, now that I am OK and better and in a state of post eating disorder autonomy, that which I was still colours perception.
A few months back I had one of those mid-week, middle of the night pangs. The kind of pangs you, irritatingly, only have at 3AM when it would be impolite to wake anyone but you know you need to do that thing right now, set it all in motion and tell someone about it so that it becomes solid and real. This was, in reality, nothing more earth-shattering than a rock-bottom feeling that I needed to be kinder to myself; to take some exercise (we’re talking a nine year hiatus here); to stop tipsily dragging on swiftly-regretted cigarettes; to stop being so hard on myself. I have a limpet-like resolve, something I’m certain aided my ability to sustain an existence of starvation for so long. But it can be useful in more progressive ways too and it was just a few days before I was out puffing and wincing and trying to ‘get back into’ running. And it worked. I’m running ten, twelve miles at a go and am ineluctably – incredibly – changed for it. It feels vital and inspiring and I am just on the right side of smugly positive about it. All of this means I feel more than a little miffed when people who were there then try and snuff out my happy little flame with their expressions of concern. I can of course see the correlation. Running, training, pushing your body into places of hurt and endurance skirts dangerously close to the edges of a previous mindset. Exercise can be addictive, compulsive; as can starvation. And that’s before we even get onto the calorie burning.
I am constantly being asked if I’m sure I’m OK. Or, am I being careful? (which sounds wincingly close to tacit disapproval of a teenage relationship) and not to take it too far. I’m aware that for most recovered people beginning any kind of exercise regime brings with it the consideration that perhaps you are sticking your head into the bears mouth. The inevitable changes it brings might be hard to cope with, or resist. I know all of this and knowing is part of the reason I was able to leave it all behind in the first place. It’s perfectly understandable of course and is, in the minds of others, perhaps akin to a recovering alcoholic announcing she’s just going press her face up against the window of a pub for several hours five times a week. Because it’s OK, she’s not going in, so it’s not the same thing. I understand why this reaction occurs, as much as I understand the intended-to-be-subtle glances that are sometimes exchanged when I say that, honestly, I’m just not hungry. It’s logical. It makes sense. It comes from a good place.
So before I sound too self-pitying I will move on to the true source of my ire: the other reaction. The reaction that shouldn’t be and isn’t logical but, depressingly, makes some kind of cultural sense. The reaction from those who weren’t there then and base their reaction on what they think – or are culturally and socially, conditioned to think – is the right reaction. I perceptibly cringe and don’t know where to put my eyes – or my frustration – when it comes. ‘But you don’t need to loose weight / you’re lucky you’re naturally thin / but you’re obviously naturally athletic anyway’. The latter a paradox; usually delivered in a way that suggests the negation of any necessity to do the thing you supposedly look so naturally able to do. The former are statements indicative of the primary function of exercise in many women’s lives: weightloss. The idea that there is no need to exercise if you don’t need to lose weight is a frustrating one, as is the attachment of exercise to a regime of restriction: enslavement almost. I actually like exercise. It makes me feel a bit more comfortable in my head; makes a bit more room up there. When you and your body have lived in a virtually constant state of mutual antagonism, doing something good for it, something that feels pure and right and as far removed from smoking and starving as you can at this point conceive, feels benedictory. It is not at all about weight and diet, words which to me are and always will be synonymous with a death rattle. We get too caught up with the weight and the aesthetics and the corporeal expectations that we are told matter; that should preoccupy us and validate us and reconcile the space we (don’t want to) take up. This shouldn’t be the normal and natural way we view ourselves and each other. And ‘body consciousness’? Please. I detest that term, created by the putrid stable of glossy magazines as another way to excoriate women, diminish their self-perception and bulldoze their self esteem. Of course we are conscious of our bodies. We carry them around every fucking day, don’t we? What they mean is conscious of the fact our bodies somehow aren’t good enough: we should be striving to train and mould them into what we have been culturally indoctrinated to see as achievable and desirable. We should be conscious of the fact that not being good enough is reversible, escapable. We can change things if we just get a little bit more masochistic with ourselves. Then it will all be OK. Reading these magazines is the intellectual equivalent of grabbing soft mounds of your own flesh and repeatedly slapping them. Of course I don’t heap all blame at the door of womens’ magazines. Probably just halfway up their path. There’s culpability there, certainly. Magazines for women propound the idea of consistently striving for more, for better – that sense of never-enoughness – in all spheres of life and it is so draining and defeating. They make women feel itchy and uncomfortable and left longing for an impossible conformity. We exercise to sculpt our abs or tighten our bingo wings; we diet to look a little less bulgy in organ-rearrangingly tight dresses. Somehow we never seem to be coaxed into doing these things out of a sheer want to be kinder to ourselves, to feel better and to live better.
And of course the Olympics were supposed to ride in on a white charger. They were going to shift our perception of what it healthy and attainable. Oh! let the (bathroom) scales fall from our eyes and enable us to see sport and exercise through the prism of fulfilment and admiration rather than self-scrutiny and diminishment. I think the whole thing succeeded only in fetishising Jessica Ennis’ abs and paying thin, pursed lip service to a bit of women’s football. For about a week.
The common misconceptions are that eating disorders are a phase; something teenage girls dabble with in a desperate bid for attention or an obsequious pursuit of vanity. At 15-20%, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and women over 50 make up 78% of anorexia-related deaths. Only 30-40% of sufferers ever fully recover and that ‘pursuit of vanity’ is the thing that finally strips you of all vanity. I don’t think anyone who has seen a severely eating disordered woman would think that it was ever any more about the way she looks. By the time your teeth are visible thorough your cheeks you’ve kind of stopped pouting in the mirror. And this is why I draw back from suggesting magazines and media influences cause eating disorders. It oversimplifies the problem. But then again maybe I eschew models of thought that suggest eating disorders develop as a response to a bombardment of images of impossibly thin women women because a tiny portion of me clings to a self-aggrandizing notion. A notion that eating disorders are somehow above this. Oh yep, sure, it’s of far greater import and holds far more gravitas than that empty, aesthetic want of thinness as a route to identikit beauty. I don’t think a cultural obsession with absence (be it flesh, wrinkles or clothes) helps and with anorexia I do think that something has to be there within your brain already, some kind of psycho-social tendency to excess, to take things far, far further than is practicable or comfortable. Or some form of deeply-rooted pain, or fear, or suppressed history. But these factors can conspire to make one woman tilt and bend under a bombardment of cultural or social influences whilst the other shrugs and carries on unhindered. It’s the drip, drip effect; the pernicious effect of reading that starvation is an accepted form of dieting (cf the 5:2 diet) and that Cheryl Cole has skinny little cylinders for legs but also has plates and plates of Walker’s crisps delivered to her dressing room. If you feel like shit already and are damaged, stressed, traumatised or abused in some way these messages are like loaded rifles. Indeed some of the crazy diets I have seen recently almost fetishise the idea of starvation; giving credence to the lie that it is both achievable and a logical response to a dissatisfaction with yourself or your current dress size. But then my response to any form of diet that advocates almost complete abstinence of food twice a week (5:2, there you are again) will be the response of a former anorexic, the response of a mind that still bears the tracks and rivets of a disordered, masochistic relationship with intake, flesh and corporeality. A couple of days of starvation a week would see me careering headlong into weird, obsessional behaviour again. So maybe I’m not the best judge of the potential effects of diet fads but I can say that for those who are struggling, or teetering on the edge of something awful, normalising hunger and starvation is disastrous.
I do, clearly, take eating disorders very seriously and am simultaneously protective and vituperative towards them. Yet I view some of the terminology – the anorexic lexicon, as it were – that has grown up around popular evocations of the illness as limiting and damaging. The illusions to the anorexic ‘voice’ as separate from the sufferer for one. The excruciating truncation of anorexia to ‘ana’ (the friendly psychiatric illness) for another. And probably the worst offender of all: the anorexic body as mouthing the words it’s sufferer cannot speak, articulating the pain she is culturally conditioned to suppress. The emaciated body as emblematic of the female struggle is an idea I find both horribly outdated and hugely misrepresentative. Of course I am not suggesting anorexia cannot be a manifestation of suppressed abuse, a turning inward of a situation too horrific to bear. It can be and often is. I am talking about the view of the anorexic body as speaking for a woman by virtue of the fact that she is a woman and so cannot speak for herself. Anorexia is not a conscious statement. It is a mental illness.
I have always been perfectly capable of articulating my anger and pain in a way my body could never do. My words are rarely open to interpretation. My body probably is. For you may once have been able to play xylophone on my ribcage but my body doesn’t speak.
And what of all those extended metaphors suggestive of anorexia as a grandiose, artistic endeavour that elevates the sufferer above the mortal? I’m looking particularly at you, Marya Hornbacher, with your baffling Alice in Wonderland tropes and exquisitely written musings that make it all seem very alluring or, as you say, very sturm und drang (It’s entirely possible you have never heard of Hornbacher, unless you suffered from an eating disorder in the late ’90s, in which case it will have been the most well-thumbed thing you owned. She’s an exceptional writer. It’s just hard to separate this fact from the incredibly triggering way she writes about her problems). Of course I’m a sucker for beautiful writing. I absolutely am. In fact I’m far less of a polemicist than I am a linguist. I just find the deification of the anorexic ‘struggle’ hard to swallow because, when it comes down to it, anorexia is boring, suffocating and hugely limiting.
I always remember the group sessions I went to, probably my third or fourth round of half-attended treatments; the group sessions I eventually elected to leave because my weight was just high enough for me to be able to do that. Getting better wasn’t at that point mandatory. These sessions were just as boring and uninventive as being shut in the house all day listening to my stomach eat itself. They seemed to have us pegged completely wrong, as if all we needed was a good dose of sense and we’d see ourselves right. They tried the scare tactics. They listed all of the professions we would struggle to be employed in with the spectre of a psychiatric illness blotting our copy books. Considering most of us could barely see a future for ourselves, or at least one beyond the next nominal morsel of food, the whole exercise seemed futile. They tried the coaxing, the ‘don’t be afraid of your body it’s actually a completely benign entity’ tack. A well-meaning psychiatrist drew a wildly off-scale diagram to illustrate how much of the human body is made up of lovely, asinine, non-damaging or neurosis-fueling water. Not fat, no not fat. You’re all aqua not lard, see? You got it wrong girls! None of it worked, or meant anything to any of us and anyway the chain smoking nurse who kept me in Marlborough Lights for the duration told me I looked nice and naturally really skinny anyway so it was probably all OK.
I can’t honestly say why I chose to get better – and it was a choice – apart from the fact it somehow ceased to matter and I wanted a better life for myself. And probably in part because I learned to filter out the cultural noise and the, real or imagined, pressure to be less. It wasn’t because I stopped reading Glamour magazine or wistfully caressing the size four jeans in Topshop. It wasn’t because a therapist helped me with a surface to air transition of all the gnarled and knotted forgotten things. It wasn’t because of – or in spite of – a man, or because of culture or books (although of those there were many). As unexciting as it sounds it became singularly boring and I was tired of feeling choked and in pain all of the time.
Eating disorders are reaching epidemic proportions. Women will soon be photoshopped out of existence. Diets are ubiquitous. Visible signifiers of age are somehow a sign of weakness. There comes an acceptance that I will probably spend most of the rest of my life in the counterculture, drowning out the noise.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that people like to google Holly Willoughby. It is a truth more esoteric that, alongside any other adjectives chosen to yield the perfect result, people like their Holly Willoughby to be smiling. (Or ‘smileing’, as it is with alarming regularity misspelt).
It’s not often you are afforded a peep through the grubby window and into the vast, sprawling world of other people’s google search terms. WordPress Stats has gifted me this, and it really is a perpetual yet immutable beast. I can, for worse, see the exact terms that directed someone towards my page. You see, I once wrote a blog about our dear old tabloid press and their endearing, cosy and innocuous as a granny in a warm jumper, obsession with the objectification and denigration of women. I talked about Holly Willoughby, the Sun and the Sunday Sport so was contextually obligated to talk about nakedness, about fetishised and isolated body parts. So now, with rote-like frequency, are the same terms, or variants thereof: adjuncts to Holly Willoughby’s name. Once, twice, five or six times daily: ‘naked’; ‘naked and smiling’; ‘nude and smiling’; ‘upskirt shots’; ‘fake upskirt shots’ (verisimilitude doesn’t matter, sayeth the googler, I can close my eyes and imagine you actually violated her decency and right to privacy, instead of just pretending you did). My favourite expressions of disembodiment and objectification are reassuringly featured too: ‘head on naked body’; ‘legs and bum shot’; ‘breasts smiling’. The latter begging the obvious question: are they looking for a smiling pair of breasts? The answer unfortunately is yes, probably. For I think this is the ultimate aim and a natural consequence. These are the insidious effects of a bombardment of imagery that gives prominence to the most obvious visual signifiers of sex; the reductive tactic of drowning out the other things that actually make a woman who she wonderfully is with a cacophonous roar of thongs, bum shots and boobs. A smiling pair of breasts. The circle complete.
And herein I, by describing this, have ramped up the not-what-you-were-expecting; the oops I’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in some spitty, spiky, feminist cul-de-sac. For I am sure there is nothing more annoying when you are hungrily click-clicking through the pages of google, bug-eyed and ravenous for a bit of airbrushed flesh, than than to think you have hit the motherload and instead realise you have hit the equivalent of your mother wagging her finger at you in disgust. But all of this has made me think more about what people google, and more specifically what young people, google. And that need for ‘smil(e)ing’ keeps gnawing at me too.
What children get up to on the internet has been, well, a moderately warm (but still annoyingly solid in the middle) political potato of late. The government has said no to default internet filters and yes to ‘active choice’. This means parents will be asked to tailor their filter settings appropriate to the children in the household. Personally, I don’t think this will achieve a great deal as many children are tech-savvy enough to circumvent these, and can get all the imagery they want from their phones, their friends phones, older siblings. Maybe it’s intended to prevent accidental exposure in the very young, although I’m not sure what very young children would be searching for to stumble upon it, but I concede it can happen. Perhaps the point should be that imagery doesn’t have to be labelled as ‘pornographic’ to have damaging effects. Consistent displays of’ Up the skirt shots’ can achieve the effect of sexually diminishing women just as well. No, no, I don’t mean the Sunday Sport is the same as hardcore pornography. I mean the totemic nature of constant imagery amounting to the violation of women’s private spaces (I mean private because they are covered, and clothed, and therefore have a right to be left as such) could lead to a negative view of women, and of womanhood.
However, Helen Goodman MP’s recent discussion with teenage girls about their representation in the media swiftly took a sideways step towards pornography. These girls discussed how access to porn has glamourised sexual violence and made sexually demeaning comments and behaviour towards them acceptable. I have spoken before about the visible, albeit winding, path between the availability of sexual imagery, the treatment of women in our popular press, street harassment and the statistic that 1 in 3 young people have suffered violence in a relationship. The repugnant force of ‘lad’ culture, riding bareback on the gnarly three-headed behemoth FHM-Zoo-Nuts, stands along this path. It serves to shepherd the uncertain, those who think maybe there is something off about rape jokes; about promoting the myth of ‘grey areas’ in rape cases; about reducing women to the size of their breasts or about featuring a columnist who advocates disfiguring a woman’s face in a revenge attack (hats of to you, Mr Dyer). Because it’s just banter, you see. Even if you say it with such frequency that it becomes acceptable, permissible, normalised. It’s still banter, innit.
I am not saying that watching pornography or being regularly exposed to the sexualisation and fetishisation of women’s body parts causes sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault. Violence is always caused by one person choosing to control, manipluate, hurt and violate another. And I have always firmly believed that. To suggest otherwise is to fan the searchlight around looking for someone else to blame. Three guesses as to who that burden naturally falls upon. What I am saying is that easily available pornographic imagery can make violent and sexually coercive behaviour more accepted, more palatable, more mainstream almost. It blurs the lines and shades around the distinctions. And for teenage boys, still formulating their opinions and figuring out how everything fits into place, this surely has the potential to be very damaging. It also serves to separate the world, to divide femininity into two separate, never-meeting spheres: the women you can do all manner of disgusting and degrading things to and those you’d let your mother meet. It isn’t for nothing that Rebecca Mott, a former sex worker turned visceral blogger, continually uses the phrase ‘copying porn onto our bodies’: to do all the nasty, degrading, dehumanising things that you wouldn’t do to your wife or girlfriend, all that twisted and violent behaviour that you see those porn actresses smiling through, smiling and simulating pleasure through the vomit and the blood. Because they have to look like they’re enjoying it. There it is again. Smiling.
For these very reasons, Kate Wills’ proclamation that Deep Throat was one of the ’50 Moments of Sexual Liberation’ stuck so resolutely in my craw. Erm, unless I’m mistaken, Linda Lovelace subsequently maintained she was violently coerced into making the film (literally, gun to head) and said the whole business made her feel ‘disgusting…like garbage’. It seemed a strange choice. Whilst we’re on this subject, Kate, lap-dancing clubs? Liberating? I get so tired of this narrative. The commercialisation and commodification of women’s bodies is liberating? I have no problem with women doing this if they want to – I’m certainly no moral guardian – but to hold it up as a great signifier of liberation? I’m not quite sure about that one. I love my partner for many reasons, largely because he is sometimes a better feminist than me, and comes out with things like this: “Misogyny’s greatest achievement: get women to strip for men, and then get them to believe that they are somehow empowered by it.”. Such ownership and decorative use of girls’ bodies, this breaking down into requisite sexual functions and signs, was a strong feature of the NSPPC’s recent report into ‘Sexting’ in schools (and thus I am saved from segueing into another diatribe completely, or from turning into Andrea Dworkin).
The NSPCC report discovered that “the way sexual attacks manifest in social networks, instant messaging, and mobile phones are interconnected and can influence the risk of physical attacks at school.” The report discovered how normalised sexism and sexual coercion was in schools: how girls were regularly wrestled to the ground whilst several boys thrust crotches into their faces; how demeaning sexual epithets were rife and the pressure to show and share breast shots saturated communication between teenage groups. Taken for granted ownership of girls’ bodies was another alarming feature of the report. Girls frequently uploaded and shared photos of themselves with a boy’s name written across a certain body part (usually the breasts, and often at the behest of the boyfriend): the starkest physical manifestation of teenage boys’ sense of entitlement to girls’ bodies. Boy as proprietor of teenage girl. In a world where rape is not rape if she once said yes before, or agreed to sleep in your bed. In a world where a woman has her breasts out, quite willingly (and for free if you pick up one of the many abandoned copies that litter park benches and tube seats) everyday in the Sun; where you can obtain and share pornography for free on your mobile phone; where nobody bats an eyelid or utters a word when an overbearing man grabs a woman’s buttocks as she attempts to deftly squeeze past him in a ticket queue. It’s hardly the greatest leap of imagination to suggest where this distortion of a mutually respectful relationship into one of property rights has its antecedents. And of how women become, universally, the done to.
Pornography is, apparently, for the virgins. The gauche, the uninitiated, search out the real thing to learn from, to copy. And it comes as no surprise that the girls complained heartily about the lack of reciprocity in sexual relationships. I have heard many times of young boys stating they get their sex education from pornography and, if true, this worries me. How much from pornography do we learn about healthy relationships, about equality and about consent? Sex education should not be about the mechanics but about safety and trust, consent and respect, self-esteem and equality. It should be about the emotional relationships that often (but granted, not always) come along with the physical bit. I think the government is too caught up in the moral panic of our astronomic teenage pregnancy rates to consider measures to mitigate and prevent the normalisation of sexual violence but at least they’ve started talking about it. No sex education should flaunt a lack of protection, normalise the absence of pubic hair or the gratification of the male above all else. I’ll say it again: boys should not be getting their sex education from pornography. I’m not saying there should be any shame in sex, and exploring sex and sexuality is a healthy part of growing up. I merely think that the continual white noise of sexual imagery, pornography and culturally accepted attitudes towards the denigration of women needs to be, at least, counterbalanced. Hopefully by speaking about healthy relationships between girls and boys, and men and women, the world will not be seen through a prism of accepted, normalised inequality. And women won’t be expected to smile through their tears and pretend they like it. And yes, I have seen pornography. And no, I am not a prude (I get so tired of pulling up the creaking reins on that defence). I did not enjoy it because I think I am hardwired to look for outward manifestations of coercion, lack of consent, pain, even when they are absent (and yes, this probably says more about me than anything else). I’ve watched it in a ponderous way and wondered if anybody at all is really enjoying what they are doing. I don’t know the answer to that question as not many people bother to stop and ask. I simply feel that unlimited, unfettered, unmitigated access to such imagery has the potential to be damaging to both girls and boys. If your parents don’t like to talk about sex, and your school only mentions it when it quietly, pink-cheekedly, reminds you to, please, not get pregnant, where else are you going to share your fears? Who are you going to talk to about what it is OK to do, and to not do? When teachers are too frightened to even allude to the existence of sexual relationships for fear of a stream of disgruntled parents beating a path to their door it feels as if teenagers are pretty much on their own. So who is left? Danny Dyer? Diedre’s photo casebook? They’ll tell you the best state for a woman is undress and physical sexualised retribution understandable, if not laudable.
Pornography and our media’s obsession with eroticising and sexualising women and girls is obviously not to blame for all that is wrong with the state of gender equality, particularly for young people, today and it is lazy and misguided to suggest that if we just protect ourselves from it we’ll all get along a hell of a lot better. So I don’t think Harriet Harman’s juxtaposing of the nice, sterile, homely Downton Abbey with the big bad wolf of pornography helpful to the debate. In a similar way I don’t think Durham Council’s bus-stop size perpetuation of the ‘rapist as big bad wolf’ myth is helpful either. We need to stop looking at societal problems, and at problems facing women today, as one dark, evil mass. If we ignore it, protect ourselves from it or cover our children’s eyes from it we’ll all be fine. Attitudes don’t emerge in a vacuum and we shouldn’t be afforded the responsibility for filtering them out. We should be talking about contributory factors, not dark matter. These are tangible things, not metaphorical scaremongerings, and should be viewed the same way as any other complex issue. Pick them apart, deconstruct them and look for ways to inform, re-educate.
It was only 15 years ago that I was at school. In that time it feels as if things have altered irreparably. Maybe I glided, invisibly, through all of the sexual coercion and property rights, the groping and the shaming. I was short-haired and angular, no breasts and too many brains. I, maybe, with my lack of outward sexual signifiers and librarian mother down the hallway was rendered beneath the sexual contempt of teenage boys. Easier targets and all that. I think I would have struggled to know who to turn to, and would have gone along with it all and smiled because the dissenting voice of an awkward, doubt-riddled teenage girl is never, ever going to be very loud.
I am eternally distracted by words; by what you can do to them, and with them. I delight in nuances of syntax, inversions of word formation, and just plain old beautiful imagery. For, behind all of the noise, selflessly propping up the social consciousness and gender indignation, lies a Book Person. And I have read a lot of books. If you once substituted paperbacks for meals (the chunk your life now cordoned off as the meaningless bit where you did nothing but wait for something) you end up ingesting a lot of beautiful writing. You end up, in some senses (but probably not in the sense Milton intended), ‘nourished’ by it. And I could say so much about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descriptions of emptiness and wealth in The Great Gatsby; the resignation and desolation of the last paragraph to The End of the Affair; every paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath. But, never having been American, or spoilt by wealth, blighted by poverty or tortured by the duties of Catholicism, their power for me lies in their ability to articulate the unimagined, the not-lived.
On the opposite side of this coin lie those accounts unfettered by lyricism; those that just plain old tell the truth without regard to artifice or construction. And these mean more to, and remain solidly within, the reader to whom they speak. I think particularly, and recently, of Patrick Stewart’s interview in last Sunday’s Independent. Patrick Stewart is a patron of the domestic violence charity Refuge and has spoken frequently and at length about growing up with a violent father. I never tire of his interviews on this subject and after reading, feel a visceral urge to give him a hug, and say thank you: the type of tighter than usual hug you give to someone – someone else – who knows. Reading this:
“I became an expert at judging the heat of an argument…as the temperature rose I would get out of bed and on to the landing, and, if it rose further, I would go down the stairs, sitting on the stone steps so as to be as close as possible to the door if something bad happened”
left me, for the remainder of the day, weakened. There I was too, my childhood self, sitting, hovering on those stairs, not always knowing the content but understanding the tone, waiting for it to spill over and with clumsy hands and slight body weave my way into the danger. I am moved again as I write this – not because I am upset or triggered by those words – but because it sometimes feels so freeing, seems so essential, to have someone say the words for you. Your frame of reference tightens so much that you think you’re the only one and the shame and stigma that can surround coming from a violent home often stops you in the telling. I get used to the diatribes on ‘bad mothers’ that are swiftly abbreviated, hastily backtracked, when I point out the very clear and practical reasons my mother did not leave (for even the ill-informed can be pragmatists). I get used to the startled ‘but you seem so normal‘ looks and the underlying assumption that all children who witness domestic violence themselves become absuers, or drug addicts, or underachievers or in some other way become invaluable and invisible to polite society. Of course this can happen, and the possible effects of domestic violence on children should be prominent and continue to form part of the wider narrative of protection, awareness and eradication. Yet stereotypes – as always – are limiting and unhelpful. Someone, who in all other ways elicited a huge amount of empathy and reasoned reaction, ended our conversation on this topic with ‘well, thank goodness you weren’t a boy’. As if to say it was only by accident of gender that I was prevented from turning into a virulent, alcoholic, woman- abusing mess of a human being. This ‘cycle of violence’ explanation is too deterministic and seeks to absolve the perpetrator of responsibility. If there is such a solid reason why someone becomes an abuser then they are stripped of any responsibility for their actions; they are not acting by choice but on instinct, on socially and psychologically conditioned behaviour. And so if we can’t blame the perpetrator, who is there left to blame? And aside from all of that I just found the comment vaguely offensive. Part of a lineage of mother-blaming. There was an intrinsic assumption: an assumption that were it not for the random, chance occurrences during fertilisation my mother would have, by not leaving, by not seeking help, laid the conditions and foundations within which a monster could grow. Mother-blaming, along with victim blaming, forms part of the culture within which domestic violence sits. The ‘why doesn’t she leave’ argument, in itself a flagrant misunderstanding of the nature of abusive relationships and barriers to help seeking, increases in weight and volume when children are involved. In some respects it suddenly becomes an issue of choice or of obligation. If you are childless, it’s up to you if you don’t want to leave. It’s your choice, a free-will thing. Yeah, if you like getting hit and harassed and emotionally tormented, go right ahead and stay seated. This alters if there are children in the home. It is no longer a choice; it becomes an obligation, an obligation to do the best by those children, to protect them from further harm and from an adult life which echoes with sounds and acts of violence. If you don’t do this you are a bad mother, a selfish mother who has blighted forever the lives of your children. This entirely shifts the focus away from how resourceful and prepared and actively engaged in protection many mothers are. It heaps unnecessary blame and coercion onto women who are already suffering enough of this as it is.
Of course I am not saying that child protection is not important, and I would balk at misinterpretation of what I am saying as a ‘mothers first’ argument. I am saying that opposing a woman’s experience of abuse against her ability to function as a mother can create an environment that impedes help-seeking. Judgements such as this are the shadowy obstacles that lurk between suffering in silence and speaking out. If we are focusing, as we should, on early intervention and prevention, shutting down routes to assistance by perpetuating false ideals of motherhood is something that needs to be tackled. The focus should not be on motherhood, but on safety, protection and routes to assistance. We need to steer away from creating monsters by way of the mothers who nurtured them. Excessive mothering created the draft dodgers and the Peter Sutcliffes; neglectful mothering created the Charles Mansons; abusive, warped mothering created the cartoonish yet murderous rage of Stephen King’s Carrie and selfish mothering creates the next generation of domestic abusers. I think I always hear this narrative, even if it is absent. Part of the legacy I am left with is a constant need to defend my mother, now with an adult’s words rather than a child’s hands, and tell people how goddamn normal I am and that look! I’m completely anti violence and really quite placid and sweet. I may have suffered in some ways as a result of my childhood, but I may just as easily have suffered had my childhood been one long uninterrupted dance of wonder. In any event there would only be one person to blame in all of this. And it wouldn’t be my mother.
This is why I think we need more Patrick Stewarts, more visibility for children who have lived in a violent home. We need to be thankful for Jahmene Douglas, who uses his X Factor fame to increase awareness of domestic violence, and who never fails to highlight how brave and loving and important his mother was when he was growing up. I want to hear more people speak out and articulate the realities of living with violence. But I want it done in a way that increases the prominence of routes to help seeking, and increases that sense of ‘I’m not aloneness’ for both mother and child. I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, nor do I have any other academic validity with which I can garnish or conclude those sentiments or this piece. I write about what I see, and feel and think. My credentials lie with literature, with linguistics. I make sense of things through the process of writing. So, whilst I do not know what it is to renounce one’s faith because it robbed you of the only person you truly loved, I can take Maurice Bendrix’s lines from The End of the Affair – ‘you’ve done enough, you’ve robbed me of enough’ – and make them plain, make them stark, make them mean to me that which I want them to. They resonate as a message to those misguided perceptions, and to the past.
Some things remain. Some experiences, despite their brevity, have the ability to inform indefinitely that which follows.
Several years ago I walked a short distance to the house of a friend. The route, so numbingly familiar and so comfortably usual, lent itself to the illusion of safety. Yet I was followed, definitely followed; his speed oscillating perfectly with mine. I will never forget that great cavernous, yawning gap in possibility as I turned into an alley-ridden side street. The lack of options. That feeling of having nowhere to go; ‘this is it, this is it’ click-clacking with my feet in the rain. So when I saw a couple, each in rain macs, walking a soggy dog and looking wonderfully out-of-the-situation normal I practically knocked them sideways with the force of my relief. I asked them to talk to me for a minute until the stranger had passed, who at that point turned and ran back the other way. This was an act so stark in it’s display of intent that I was simultaneously relieved at having trusted my instincts and wretched at the thought of what might have happened if there weren’t dogs to walk. I never reported this, and my telling of the experience has been until now limited to a handful of close friends who greeted me at the other end that evening, and who muted my panic with warmth and guitars and tipsiness. Part of me winces as I recount this, sharp in the knowledge that silence allows continuity and that perhaps for the next woman that slightly baffled couple were absent. In reality, though, I would know little of the man’s appearance other than in blurred flashes as my head twanged and snapped from periphery to backward glance, desperately trying to determine proximity. So I could only deal in uncertainties, in vagueness. I would have been able to tell the police that a man I could not even loosely describe was probably following me a while ago. It felt insignificant when articulated and would more than likely have been ignored. But then, had women in this area been assaulted before, or reported suspicious behaviour? Had I suddenly become the broken link, my silence the perpetuator?
It’s amazing when you think on it: I was subjected that evening to a pretty frightening ordeal. For the time it lasted there was so much fear, so much desperation that I can feel my breath catching as I pull forward the memory to write this. Yet I did, and do, tie myself up with the knotty thoughts of what I should have done, of what I did wrong. Yep, what I did wrong. This is of course a familiar and somewhat conditioned response. Women feel stupid for ‘letting’ it happen, for moving away from street lights, for going out alone, for taking up public space. Of course we all know that violence, harassment and rape are out there; out there lurking, scuffing their feet and sharing cigarettes until we forget the ‘rules’ and career blindly into their path. It is somehow perceived as a woman’s responsibility to deftly avoid sexual harassment or assault in public space. But there is also for many women a much deeper, less erroneous, sense of ambivalence towards the responsibility of speaking out: what will happen if you do or if you don’t, what it means to keep silent or to speak.
I know that I have probably until now given limited thought to how my willingness to move freely, to take up public space, has been hindered and hijacked by what has gone before. I do know that since that otherwise unremarkable autumn evening I avoid at all costs walking anywhere alone after dark: no distance is too short for my hanging-on-by-a-thread Fiesta to traverse. Yet unless I am, as now, giving credence to the potential limitations harassment places on women’s mobility, I rarely connect the two events. It wasn’t until I completed a survey on women’s safety in public spaces that I began to analyse where I go, how I act and how harassment can, in some senses, shape liberty. Coventry Women’s Voices are currently conducting this survey to gauge “the degree of concern women who live and work in Coventry have about their safety in public spaces”. The questions centre largely on harassment in public spaces, and if you live or work in Coventry I highly recommend that you take the time to fill this out. It really makes you step back and analyse those incidents which you possibly – probably – brushed off or sealed away as ‘one of those things’. Even if it made you angry. Even if it left you humiliated or questioning your validity. And you are not alone in this. The End Violence Against Women Coalition carried out a survey earlier this year, which revealed that 4 in 10 women in London have been sexually harassed in public spaces. International estimates put the figure at 80%. I would say anecdotally and logically this is closer to 100%.
As a society we do not tend to view as important the ubiquitous things, the acts that enmesh themselves with everyday life. Movements such as Hollaback! should be applauded for allowing women the space to share their experiences of street harassment and share in the collective thought that this is very much not OK. I do not think it is OK for a group of males to comment on my mother’s breasts whilst she waits for a bus. I do not think it is OK for a man to put his face so close to mine that I can feel the wetness of his spittle and then shout ‘you’re fucking gorgeous’ so aggressively that it completely nullifies any notion of a compliment. I’m also not a huge fan of being asked constantly, by men who clearly have a want of meaningful pursuits, what my name is. Like it matters. Audrey, Karen, Lisa. I’m Everywoman. There is a problem with how we view harassment in public spaces, in no small part due to the fact that many people struggle to see it as ‘harassment’ at all. It now seems to click so easily into the catch-all term ‘banter’ and so the challenging of it carries assumptions about the woman, rather than the perpetrator. You’re an uptight, histrionic, ‘women’s libber’ if you can’t absorb a few wolf whistles or kissing noises as you carry out the highly eroticised act of getting a pint of milk in your tracksuit bottoms. And this is entirely the point. The catcalling and wolf whistling, the jerky, spasmodic grabbing of sexual organs, the following, the sexual degradation, it all feels so indiscriminate, so done by rote. Such harassment is so pervasive, so entrenched, so normalised and routine that it seems completely devoid of the element it is ostensibly about: sex. Harassment of this kind does not correlate with what a woman is wearing, her age, her level of perceived attractiveness or the size of her breasts. It is not about sex, or sexiness, but it is about entitlement; about casually delivered discrimination and about how our culture carries the weight of the issue with impunity. You’re a ‘lad’, it’s a bit of harmless fun, it’s all so innocuous and trivial that we really should be turning our attention to something with infinitely more gravity.
Maybe like what you’re doing tonight, darlin’.
Acts should be judged by their effect on the recipient. If constant harassment, or fear of harassment, is limiting women’s freedom of movement, limiting their willingness and ability to direct the course of their lives as they wish, then this is a problem. I could cut vast swathes through the stomach-churningly obnoxious concept of a ‘lad culture’ but for now, suffice to say, if such virulent, hateful and vengeful language towards women is humourous and this is the kind of culture we are endorsing, or a least condoning, for young men then I don’t know what the heck is going on. Apparently these epithets, these demeaning comments, would never traverse the boundary from words to deeds. These are nice, healthy young men who are engaging in a bit of rape banter, a bit of collective gender discrimination, but it doesn’t actually mean anything because they’d never really knock their girlfriend out and then fuck her until she bled. They don’t really view women as only having as much validity as the time it takes to squeeze a breast. And they don’t actually think Chris Brown is a hero. (Please, God).
But it does mean something. It makes this kind of discourse acceptable and it perpetuates the normalisation of gender discrimination. It stretches further the myth that women are put on this planet only to have things done to them. They can be laughed at, they can be looked at, they can be shouted at, whistled at or grabbed. Women can be poked and pulled and twisted and their presence is required only to gratify. Of course I would never suggest that most men think this way; in fact I’d balk at the suggestion that all men are street harassers and devaluers of women. To suggest this is also to devalue men. Yet because a level of tolerance exists, because street harassment is rinsed in banter and laddishness and stripped of all importance it is granted continuation. People don’t consider what it actually feels like to be spoken to or touched in such an intimate way by a complete stranger; to be followed and to have your personal space and sense of safety encroached upon. People don’t consider the force and impact of these acts, made more forceful by being culturally intrinsic. For, you see, this is what men do, and this is what women receive. Few at all seem to consider how such acts, or fear of such acts, can impinge on a woman’s wellbeing. And this is why people in the street look away, or down, or at each other. Anywhere but at the problem.
I will not deny that the incident I recounted as I opened this piece arguably lies at the more sinister end of the harassment spectrum and if I had ‘merely’ been subjected to the odd unsolicited fondle or crude comment I may not so tightly adhere to the creed of never walking the streets alone after dark unless it is absolutely unavoidable. But I do still run on them. Running is my sanctuary, my little reclamation. I feel cocooned in the knowledge I am doing something positive and powerful and am breezing past so quickly that the comments barely have time to zing off my back. Of course I have had harassment: I have had people follow me on bikes and in cars, blocking my path or commenting on my arse. I have chosen to ignore them, because I am busy doing something I love. In a strange way my inclination to challenge street harassment is probably inversely proportionate to my awareness of gender inequality and women’s issues. In my teens and early twenties I would fire back. I was defiant and vociferous. As I have aged I have come to realise, and indeed witnessed, the harm that can come from answering back. I cannot predict the vagaries of street harassers and, if I am being candid, would never challenge harassment if I were walking along in the company of men. They probably don’t hit ladies, you see. And I’ve had enough of violence.
The survey asked what I thought could be done to make women safer. I blathered on a bit about some things that might make women feel safer, and give them a bit more light and company. But maybe these things are illusory. So afterwards, and over the next few days, as I thought more and spoke about this to the people I love and admire and respect, I realised that this feeds into other debates around awareness (re)education and responsibility. We need more awareness of the level of harassment women face on a daily basis; we need education in schools about respect, and gender equality and how what you say to a woman or girl can – out there in the world – mean a hell of a lot more than you meant it to. Teenagers and ‘lads’ need reminding that the world is not divided into two types of women: the nasty ones it is OK to denigrate and the nice ones you protect. Shifting attitudes can take time, but campaigns highlighting the issue and more people talking about what street harassment implies for our society can only be for the good. People should be encouraged to challenge the open and public discrimination of women. I have set out the reasons why many would not challenge directly the behaviour of a stranger, or group of strangers, and I do not think fear of violence should be shrugged off as an ‘excuse’ for remaining silent. But if we are talking about the issue more and challenging it through debate and discussion and just plain old visibility it will trickle in among the gaps within tight friendship and peer groups. Friends can remind each other that ‘bitch’ is not an acceptable epithet for a woman and ask each other if they’d be happy if a stranger grabbed their sister’s breasts whilst she was getting off the number 21 because that top she was wearing made her look like she was in the nasty half.
It will take time and many people will still suggest I have just created a linguistic mountain out of nothing. I would say to them that street harassment is one branch, one connection, of a sprawling problem. I am not being alarmist when I say you can connect the dots between objectification of women in our popular media, pornography, ‘lad’ culture, domestic violence, sexual violence and street harassment. I am not saying one leads to another or you can’t be involved in one without being involved in them all. I am saying that perhaps that gap between words and deeds is not immutable and we should not assume it is so. If we assume then we cease to notice. Cease to pay attention. And in the case of street harassment we need everybody looking.
*** I encourage any Coventry women to now fill out the Coventry Women’s Voices survey and help them with this important piece of research.***
A man sits in a cluttered room. Tasks of infinite consequence lie, shimmering, before him. With a few clicks and drags he creates work of unparalleled importance, work that bristles and crackles with the shock of the new*. This man has toiled and striven relentlessly to bring to the world truth, justice and a photoshopped picture of the space between a woman’s legs.
So the Sunday Sport, purveyors of gratuitous nudity, breezily delivered objectification and slumbering reportage have been called out again. This – oh, how it catches in the throat! – ‘newspaper’ previously superimposed Holly Willoughby’s head onto a naked female body. Last Sunday they decided that only one thing could supersede such an act of necessary, integral journalism: a photo of her thong bedecked bottom, taken from a ground-level vantage point. Like the journalistic equivalent of waving a sexual conquest’s pants in the air the Sport seemed to claim they now somehow owned Willoughby, and freely owned the right to share this stolen intimacy; to share her private space, her body. Only it wasn’t, apparently, her bottom. Like some kind of virulent, stalkerish, mass wish fulfilment the Sport photoshopped the image and emblazoned it across their front page. On Monday it was revealed that Holly Willoughby has reported this nattily titled ‘fake up the skirt’ incident to the Press Complaints Commission.
I like Holly Willoughby. She has a lovely smile and a juvenile appreciation of the double entendre. She makes me like Phillip Schofield more. I felt, in part, violated on her behalf, even if that violation was only simulated, only created electronically. And, no, I don’t think the fact she allows herself to be referred to as ‘Holly Willoboobie’ and laughs at sex jokes means she is fair game. The same as I don’t think short skirts or a lack of street lighting can be held up as credible ’causes’ of rape. The same as I don’t think answering back causes domestic violence. This narrative of blaming the subject, and in this horribly constructed context the object, of predatory, violent or harmful sexual behaviour (real or imagined) is far too prevalent.
The ickiness of our press is, of course, a hot topic right now and if Leveson hasn’t suffocated under the weight of testimony and expectation we will soon hear the results of his inquiry. I have spoken before of my respect for the submissions made by Object and Turn Your Back on Page Three to this inquiry. These groups tirelessly campaign against the routine, almost institutionalised, sexualisation and objectification of women in the popular press. And we’re not talking here of only the most obvious, salient examples; the page threes and the whisper thin stories centred around the presence of a semi naked woman. We are also talking of the more insidious, of the trivialising and eroticising of violence against women. Object and Turn You Back On Page 3’s submission included this headline from the Sport: “party girls thumped for having lesbo sex”. Incidences of violence against women filtered through the lens of a Carry on Film. It is insulting, degrading and symptomatic of a larger malaise. The popular tabloids project antipathy, if not hostility, through their utilisation of the female form in a merely decorative manner, limiting female importance to a selection of chosen body parts. And there is certainly no space for you – apart from in their ire – if you are of a certain age.
These ‘newspapers’ have been an abrasive presence in my life for a while. But, what first began as a gentle niggling and scratching ended with excoriation, ended with me tearing my skin off: big gaping wounds of anger and defiance. For I do believe that the derogatory treatment of women in the popular press is so prevalent, so commonplace, so all-consuming that it appears innocuous. An involuntary shift in your brain means you forget that there is something more than a little off with the fact that Geoff and Brian from accounts are gawping, bug-eyed at a naked woman whilst you try to quietly sip your coffee and keep your mind on your novel. You forget that there is something very definitely not OK with the concept of young children seeing boobs in daddy’s newspaper and thinking that maybe this is what women do, that this is all women are. The reality is that the tactics and lexicon of such ‘newspapers’ are in themselves a hostile act. The cutting and the pasting, the superimposing, contorting and lying, feels like some sort of misogynistic art class. There is something viscerally sinister about our press electronically decapitating and disarticulating women and then creating something else out of the parts. The accusation that the Sun and the Sport see women as a construction of limbs and glands, or a constellation of erogenous zones, and nothing else finds it’s starkest manifestation in the recent treatment of Holly Willoughby. Cutting off a woman’s head and placing it upon the body of another feels like sexualised vandalism. It feels like the kind of thing you do to someone you don’t like, to ridicule and to humiliate them. It feels like the journalistic equivalent, the public dissemination, of defacing a photo in a jealous rage. It reminds me of my pre-teen anger and jealousy towards the partner of whoever was my latest crush. It reminds me of drawing a ‘tache and demon eyes on the woman currently dating Dexter Fletcher (I apologise profusely to Julia Sawalha, and to anyone who did not grow up in the ’80s). Yet this is our press.
I know that the Sport is like the spotty, nose-picking, marginally less intelligent younger brother of the Sun. I know that it is an easy target and, arguably, makes no pretensions to be anything other than a skin mag cut from cheaper cloth. I also know that a blessedly small amount of people actually buy it. Yet it operates as a newspaper, and is shelved at eye and hand level of children. However the Sun, which shares more than a few genes with the Sunday Sport, is Britain’s most popular newspaper. It uses women as decoration. It diminishes them by reducing any achievement to the shape of their thighs or the size of their breasts. It objectifies the female from with page three. But not only this. It then ridicules these women by placing giant pearl necklaces around their neck (the hillarity), or concocting ridiculously erudite quotes and attributing them to the woman who couldn’t possibly know who Satre is, because she has her boobs out.
I know that there will be some who will level the accusation that I have a problem with page three because I have small breasts, or am puritanical, or uptight. Just think of the treatment of Claire Short when she tried to stand up to all of this way back in the 1980s. She was coerced by puerile bullshit until she gave in. But think on this, and see if it makes sense. You cannot show breasts on TV until after the watershed, yet you can pick up the Sun from a newspaper shelf any time of day. The wonderful triad of anti page three activists Object, Turn Your Back on Page Three and No More Page 3 staged a protest outside of News International last Saturday to mark the 42nd anniversary of page 3. A huge birthday card had been made, a ‘spot the difference’ card showing the differing representations of the male and female form in the Sun. This obviously featured a lot of breasts. Object put this onto Facebook, and it was subsequently removed. So lets recap. Facebook took down photos from page three yet groups on Facebook like one celebrating the space between a woman’s thighs or mocking domestic violence and rape victims somehow turn themselves sideways and glide through the decency standard by waving the caveat ‘controversial humour’. Images from page three were censored at the Levenson Inquiry yet they are OK for public consumption in a national newspaper.
I genuinely believe that the representation of women in newspapers such as the Sun is damaging and limiting to women. Page three is only a part of the problem but probably the largest visual signifier of the need for things to change. I do have small breasts but I also have a pretty large intellect. You see, breasts and smarts can coexist and women are more than the sum of their body parts. And yes, I know there are acts of devastating atrocity occurring in the world. I know this. But what I’m saying here is important, funnily enough because women’s breasts are so unimportant, so usual, natural and unremarkable that their presence in a newspaper is entirely unnecessary. Night follows day. Women have breasts. The sky is blue and the pope is catholic. Please, The Sun, find something useful to say.
*Apologies, in memoriam, to Robert Hughes.