It’s an inarguable fact of life that, in many areas of popular culture, women’s bodies are presented in a heavily sexualised way. Magazine covers, lads mags, advertisements, pornography and even fashion editorials; no matter your opinion of the phenomenon, sexualised imagery of women is hard to escape in 2014.
What can be more difficult to find, however, are healthy attitudes to genuinely autonomous expressions of sexuality. Whether it’s attitudes to casual sex, to women who act in porn or to women who perform other forms of sex work, the male gaze is often not only consumptive but judgemental to boot. Women engaging in any of these areas are dismissed as “sluts” and “whores” or thought of as “dirty”. The message is clear; we want to fuck you, but we don’t respect you. Or, in the words of a sex worker I follow on Tumblr: “you’ll jack off with your left hand and point with your right”.
This can be very clearly illustrated in the recent case of the “Duke Porn Star”, an American college student whose work in adult film was “exposed” by a fellow student. The surrounding furore, as well as the death threats and abuse she’s received, were explained in her words here. It’s pretty shocking (but sadly, unsurprising). Casual sex is seen in much the same way. Many women I know have been criticised, mocked or judged for their sexual expression - sometimes even during a sex act! If your number of sexual partners is deemed too high, that’s a crime too; even if the person judging you has themselves contributed to that number! Stripping faces a similar fate; I’ve heard friends of mine say they’d happily visit a strip club and pay for a lapdance but would “never” date a stripper. Hello, cognitive dissonance!
What does it say, then, that genuine sexual autonomy is looked down on? It says that women are still expected to be passive receptacles. That sex, for women, is still totally performative; we’re expected to engage in sexual behaviour, but heaven forbid we actually enjoy it. And don’t even THINK about seeking it out yourself, or seeking a career in the sex industry; even when you talk eloquently about your choices they’re still deemed to be the wrong ones. You must be defective, or damaged, or have experienced some kind of trauma (the “stupid little girl who doesn’t understand her actions” as Belle Knox was told). There’s no way that a woman can enjoy sex as freely and self-indulgently as a man!
If you have a political or personal problem with promiscuity, porn or sex work, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t want to engage in that behaviour yourself, that’s also fine. What isn’t okay, though, is using the objectification of women for your own ends and then denigrating the women who are providing you with pleasure. The bottom line is this: if you disdain or vilify sexual autonomy, you don’t deserve to benefit from it.
As women, we’re often defined by our relationships with men. Even in discussions of rape or sexual violence, women are referred to as “someone’s wife, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister”, as if our personhood alone is not worthy of mention. And, while we should never be defined by our relationships with any other person, our friendships with other women may have the radical potential to help us escape this compartmentalisation.
Media depictions of women’s friendships are somewhat lacking. There are two choices: either you hate other women and view them as competition, or you have a facile, “girls night out” relationship with your friends, where all you talk about is shoes and cocktails. It’s a false dichotomy that fails to take into consideration the true depth and spirit that really exists between women.
Our conversation is often referred to as “bitching”, “gossiping” or “girl talk”, as if nothing of worth could possibly pass between two women. Sex and the City is often derisively evoked here; all we do is sit around drinking in expensive bars and laughing about our exes, right? For a bit of variety we might mention shopping, or some other girl who we hate, or maybe even our weight. They are the only topics women can possibly manage, such is the intellectual capacity of our weak and feeble brains.
Do I talk about clothes and relationships and sex with my friends? Of course. But that doesn’t mean our friendship is somehow any more trivial than that between two men, that because we talk about these things we’re somehow less intelligent or our connection is in any way diminished. Moreover, why are those topics denigrated and perceived as insignificant? Purely because they are “feminine” and associated with women.
Talking about, and sharing, a lived experience, is absolutely not trivial. The way we travel through the world is indubitably defined by our gender, and a wordless appreciation of that from another woman can go a long way in our understanding and acceptance of ourselves. Furthermore, this kind of friendship allows us to share experiences that the men in our lives are unable to fully understand. Our experience of sexual harassment, sexist jokes or other everyday misogynies are often, sometimes unwittingly, undermined by men, and we’re left feeling unimportant and ignored. This is something I’ve never experienced in my friendships; I’m always believed, I’m always supported, I’m always left feeling as if I do indeed have value.
And you know what? Friendship between women is more than just a simple relationship; it’s a feminist act. Patriarchy seeks to undermine women, to diminish our achievements and to separate us from each other. Friendship between women can form a sturdy wall that slowly pushes against this discouragement; a vital community in which we feel safe and supported, in which we can express the way we feel without being shouted down or accused of exaggeration. It can provide us with the energy and confidence to speak up, to begin to stand our ground and let our voice be heard.
Like it or not, every aspect of a woman’s life (her career, her sex life, motherhood) is deeply saturated with complex gender politics. The solidarity that comes hand in hand with women’s friendships can allow us to navigate these nuanced difficulties with the support, understanding and love that patriarchy has tried to deny us.
Depression is really fucking boring.
There; I said it. It’s boring. There’s no real sex appeal in being fucked up, no matter how compelling it may have seemed in Girl, Interrupted. There’s no brightly burning blaze of creativity or a deep insight into the human condition. It’s actually fairly banal. The most interesting thing about me, when depressed, is the fact that I smell like a bin.
You see showering, when depressed, is extraneous. Food, when you remember to eat it, is a tasteless, grey mush. Music loses its appeal unless you’re using it to fuel your own self-pity, in which case it’s invaluable. Want to read a book? Fat chance. Even if you can drag yourself out of bed long enough to reach a bookcase (unlikely), you’ll be able to read approximately 3 sentences before the letters start crawling off the sides of the pages. Want to get dressed? Good luck with that one!
Having a relationship with your own mental health can be tricky. Self pity and self hatred are peppered with despair, hopelessness and sorrow, making the experience of having depression somewhat like Existentialist Literature Bingo. Once medication or therapy or simply time have beaten your brain back into obedient submission, there’s still an ever-present vigilance that monitors and pounces on every bad mood. ‘Is it normal to be anxious about this?’ it asks; ‘is this a bad day at work or the start of a breakdown?’
Because of this, it’s easy to become hooked on understanding why and how. Every mechanism of my brain is analysed and dissected, every whim or feeling jumped upon. It can become difficult to know where I begin and depression starts; how much of ‘me’ is a direct result of mental illness.
I saw a description of mental illness as being “the old paint under the new”; it’s an integral, instrumental part of yourself, even if you’re functional again. It’s the heartbeat that never ceases thumping slowly behind everything else; quieter, maybe, than it was before, but unmistakably present. It’s the numb ache that steadily throbs just behind your consciousness when you’re in a meeting, or on the phone, or stood in the shower. It’s the whisper that follows you home and sits on your shoulder and makes you doubt yourself. It might duck out of sight when you turn to face it head on, but it’s still there, omnipresent.
This, combined with the obsessive self-fixation that comes hand in hand with depression, can make it easy to feel that you have no real personality underneath it all. Would I be as empathetic, as sensitive to other people’s pain, if I were ‘normal’? Would I love as intensely or as deeply? Would I even love the things I love? Would the books and bands that have defined my life be deemed irrelevant or inconsequential? It might seem insignificant, but to me it’s a deeply disheartening thought; that some of the traits that are integral to ‘being Emily’ are only a result of a dysfunction.
But the longer I think about it, the more I realise that I am not my depression. There are things I’d never have felt or experienced had I been totally sane, and these have indubitably affected who I am now. Nevertheless, there’s more to me than that. I’d still be compassionate and kind. I’d still be a good writer - I’d still love books and I’d still be passionate about words. And most importantly, I’d still be a good person. And that, no matter how bad I feel or how deep I dive into depression, is something worth holding on to.
It’s around this time of year that the familiar, creeping pressure to diet becomes most prevalent. Overindulgence at Christmas combined with the endless barrage of weight loss ads and celebrity DVDs are a potent mixture, and one that can often lead to a pretty powerful feeling of self hatred. Don’t get me wrong, women’s bodies are under scrutiny all year round, but it’s in January that the “new you!” discourse becomes strongest. Just this week I’ve seen articles on “transformative” and “life changing” diets, and about 45,000 adverts for WeightWatchers and DietChef.
What we’ve become used to seeing is “slim”. Slim women who used to be fat are the favourite of tabloids, but any kind of slim woman is okay. The right amount of curve on your bum, the right kind of flat stomach, the right sized boobs and you’re set. Make sure you’re not too thin, though, or you’ll be described as “emaciated”, or aspersions will be cast about the state of your personal life - only totally stressed, ill people are skinny, right? You basically have to look like Jessica Rabbit - although Kelly Brook, the closest thing we have to a human equivalent, has been dismissed as being “chubby” in the past, so even that’s not quite enough.
I started going to the gym about six months ago in an effort to train myself for a 10k run I’m doing for Rape Crisis (obligatory sponsorship link here). It was around this time I started looking on fitness and health blogs for inspiration and tips; after all, I’d done no real exercise for years, and I didn’t want to get it wrong or lose my motivation. I found hundreds of blogs, Tumblrs and Pinterest boards full of motivational imagery, pictures of strong girls in bikinis, and meal plans; it turned out that my new, idle hobby was a big subculture.
At first, I thought it was great. It felt empowering to be given messages of strength rather than fragility, and it was so far away from the usual image of female “perfection” the media served up that I couldn’t see any harm in it. “Hey!”, I thought, “I’m not being told I have to starve myself!”. It was a novelty, as a woman, to feel like that. But the more I read, the more I realised that I’d been duped. It turned out that, while I didn’t have to eat baby food for two weeks or only drink juice for the rest of my life, I did have to go to the gym every day, cut out all sugar and be able to bench my own body weight. Oh.
Around the time I was becoming more critical of these images, Maria Kang, a mother of three, started obnoxiously asking fat women “what’s your excuse?” (Daily Mail link). Jennifer Lawrence described her workout routine for the Hunger Games as being focused on “being fit and strong, not thin and underfed”, and claimed she would “never starve herself for a role”. Is it just me, or is this sounding a little like body shaming? Being strong was no longer a lifestyle choice - it was yet another impossible mould.
It wasn’t just celebrities getting in on the act; as I looked further into the world of fitness and health blogs, I felt more and more pressure to adhere to certain standards. These women would never sit and eat a packet of HobNobs in one go! They have beautiful houses (which I don’t), eat meticulously prepared, nutritionally balanced meals (guess what - I don’t do that either), and all look like Jillian Michaels (no points for guessing that I DEFINITELY DON’T). Every time I ate junk food or skipped a gym session I felt more than the vague sense of guilt that comes from bailing on a commitment; I hated myself, and I hated my body.
The Internet is a bit of a funhouse mirror; it might reflect things, but it also distorts them. I’m fully aware that the bloggers, yoga obsessives and fitness mad mums aren’t perfect, and their lives are probably just as full of chaos and disorder as mine. And do strong women look great? Fuck yes. But when one body shape is used as a tool to attack women, there’s a problem. And, while I’m still going to the gym and training for my run, I’m no longer comparing myself to any other type of woman. Being myself is good enough.
With all the contemplation that the New Year inevitably brings, I had planned to do a quick summation of 2013 for women. When I saw this video though, from amazing organisation Miss Representation, I realised didn’t have to do it.
I don’t know about you, but it depressed me. While it is certainly heartening that the Representation Project is highlighting these issues (and therefore showing that we’re not willing to put up with this shit anymore), the deluge of crap women have put up with in 2013 has not been great.
With this in mind, I thought I’d put together the top three things I’d like to see in 2014 to make it better than the last twelve months. Let me know if you have any suggestions, comments or questions.
More positive coverage
While Malala, Wendy Davies and even Beyoncé have brought feminism and women’s rights to the forefront of discussion, the “How The Media Failed Women” video proves that these efforts were somewhat undermined by mindless, misogynistic advertisements and news stories.
I want to see women in the news more. I want women like Daisy Coleman, a teenage rape victim who spoke out against her attackers, and Charlotte Laws, who fronted an amazing, dogged campaign against revenge porn, to be on the front of magazines and newspapers. Women’s magazines could learn a lot here. Do we really need another Hollywood star on the front of Glamour or Cosmopolitan? How about profiling campaigners or activists? They might be less glamorous and have less to say about juice diets and yoga, but they would send an invaluable message to young women.
I’d also like to see more pro-woman ad campaigns. I’m not saying I want Gloria Steinem selling me toothpaste, but having seen a couple of great ad campaigns aimed at women doing really well and getting loads of press coverage, there’s no excuse anymore for sexist ads.
The most prominent and successful campaigns I’ve seen this year are this, from Pantene Philippines, which highlights the double standards faced by women in business, and this, from GoldieBlox, which encourages girls to ditch the Barbies and become engineers.
See - it’s not that hard!
Less mindless fuckery
Seth McFarlane, Robin Thicke, Martin Freeman, Tony Abbott…just four of the people who, over the past year, have fucked up. If I spent about three more minutes thinking about it, I’m sure this list would multiply depressingly.
Is it really THAT hard not to say disgustingly offensive things? Is it totally unreasonable of us to expect slightly higher standards from people who have such a huge platform? We’re always told we’re “overreacting” for not wanting to hear gendered, racial, homophobic or transphobic slurs, as if language isn’t THE ENTIRE BASIS OF EVERYTHING and that the cultural environment we live in isn’t THE CONTEXT FOR LITERALLY EVERYTHING THAT WE DO.
I wrote about not putting up with this shit last month, and I stand by it. Down with this sort of thing.
Harder, faster, louder
2014 for me is going be a year of action. Whether it’s volunteering, supporting charities through donations, writing, calling people out on their lazy stereotyping or just tweeting, I’m going to do everything I can to support other women. I’m monitoring my own language, reading as much as I can and admitting responsibility when I do mess up.
Are we going to piss some people off? Probably. Does that mean we’re going to stop? Definitely not. We’re not going to achieve anything by keeping silent - so lets make 2014 the year we make as much noise as we possibly can.