Cruel beauty

The other day I came across a report produced by the Advertising Standards Agency recently. They have done a survey of advertising compliance in the cosmetics industry and discovered that 93% of the adverts surveyed complied with the law. That may sound good – 93%! – but then even gambling adverts have a 99% compliance rate while food and drink advertising is at 99.2% – and both of these industries are held to special higher standards with tighter controls than is the case in the general law. There are seven times more non-compliant beauty ads than either gambling or food and drink ads. Skin cream adverts were the worst offenders with a 19% breach rate.

It interested me, so I share it.

I could go on a bit – I could refer back to The Beauty Myth and body fascism and talk about how horribly the cosmetics industry perpetuates and exploits women’s socially created insecurities, trying and too often succeeding at making us all feel inadequate and unacceptable for not being supermodels, blah blah blah. I could relate it to the woman and her two male friends who thought it was OK yesterday to make loud remarks (from a safe place on the other side of a high fence) about how unacceptable my tits are, my tits which do not even try to be “acceptable” and yet which still felt humiliation at having their inadequacy pointed out so loudly, pointedly, rudely, aggressively. Poor boobs. Lovely boobs. Stuff’em.

Or maybe I could go in another direction. I could get into an ASA groove and relate an adjudication I read about today on four TV ads for a gambling website, which featured the (self-)humiliation of a number of people with dwarfism. The adjudication considered at great length to consider whether or not the ads were juvenile and therefore likely to appeal to young people and encourage them to gamble. They were also careful to refer to the characters in the adverts as “persons of restricted growth” or “persons of short stature”. Which is all very sensitive – yet why is the horribly offensive nature of the advert – which features little people participating in stunts designed to belittle them, to humiliate them, to make them look silly, to use their bodies as entertainment, as entertaining (so reminiscent of the freak shows and the dwarf tossing of days gone by) – why is this overlooked entirely? I’m not sure to be frank whether to call this kind of advert “ableist” as it may depend on whether you consider dwarfism to be a disability… but surely, whatever you call it, it isn’t acceptable in a just society?

Well I could go on and on and on, following these little avenues or maybe some other avenue or – like – whatever.

The trouble is, I’ve been deep inside a place at the centre of me, looking out, pondering, looking in, allowing slow thoughts to come clear. Digging, thinking, working things out. Planting seeds and allowing them to germinate in their own good time. Gardening starts to teach you patience, starts to make you think, a little, of the long view. This is all jumbled up because it is that time when jumbling happens, when clear thoughts emerge from soup. Have patience. The seeds are here.

What I’m saying is that – in the scheme of things – skin cream? Skin cream?

People are dying out there. Women are dying. They are under boots and behind doors and inside the Woman’s Room. We are being beaten and tortured and imprisoned and starved and raped and ignored. All over everywhere. And I put on my boots and I dig in the soil and I look forward to harvesting – what? That sneaky “we”, it isn’t “we” at all… And I can talk about this guy, or this woman, or this company, or whatever and – it all comes back to – the woman looking in a soul mirror, a woman looking in her mirror and seeing blood. But not her own. Not my own.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.

That oath. It was sworn long before me, long before my babe who lies safe, safely sleeping – yet both of us have the blood on our hands, our innocent hands. The oath sworn, before either of us, nevertheless binds us both, just as surely as it binds every woman and every man on this entire planet. I am not afraid of blood, but whose blood is it? And what can I do to heal the wound it came from, to unwind the oath and save the babe? Whose babe? Not mine, for she is safe asleep, with blood on her hands too.

Oh, and I want milk. I want milk.
But whose babe will go without?
And how much of this is menstrual poetry?
And how much of it is real?


Today is a double celebration in that this post marks both International Women’s Day and, more or less, the anniversary of my moving this blog to WordPress.

Woo, as they say, hoo.

I’m unable to get excited about this year’s event. I guess it is just the sheer depressing fact that today, and all its excited preamble, merely reminds me that the other 364 days of the year (365 in the case of 2008) are International Men’s Days.

Anyhow, this blog is year-round woman-centred and often international – so where would be the fun in getting all excited over a woman-centred post especially for 8 March? Really? So, in satirical mood, I hereby declare 8 March 2008 as Touchingly Naive Men’s Day, my day to focus on da menz.

I struggled to think of anything much to celebrate about “how far men have come” and it wasn’t easy coming up with “issues men still face today”. But I am woman enough to acknowledge that men *do* have their problems and today I would like to focus on a very real area of specifically male oppression. Yep, I thought of one…


Beards. Who likes beards? I don’t. They are – beardie.

In my personal facial hair hall of fame/shame, I would rank men’s bearing choices as follows (most acceptable first):

  • Clean-shaven. Smooo-ooooth.
  • Full beard with moustache – as long as it’s not *too* bushy!
  • Then a few that tied for third place: just a mustache, no beard; stubble but not a full-grown beard; or a “lovely” sculpted goatee.
  • Great big bushy beard, complete with monster eyebrows… honestly, have these people never read The Twits?
  • And finally, least acceptable bearding choice of them all – a big, full-grown beard with no moustache. Seriously, this is the worst – the “hair that goes all the way around your face” look. What is this? You carefully shave your upper lip every day, but leave everything else to grow like topsy? Why?

I must admit that, since I am not in fact a manhater etc etc, I have been making some effort to overcome my beard prejudice. After all, if we castigate men who expect us to shave our body hair, surely we should bring a little consciousness to the party and stop judging men as acceptable or not based on their shaving choices…

…And this is much easier once you have decided that you are never actually going to snog a man ever again so there is no danger of stubble rash as a result… 😉

In the spirit of critical analysis, I have to wonder – why is it that we have a cultural preference for clean-shaven men? I know very few men with beards. I know several who have grown beards in the past, come under enormous pressure to debeard, and then received universal praise for their “new, younger” clean-shaven look once the beard finally goes. The pressure on da menz to shave their faces is just as intense as the pressure on women to shave their legs and armpits… Of course, the context is difference because men are not the sex class and are unlikely to face, say, actual disgust and job discrimination if they refuse to comply. But, still.

Why? Why do we expect men to be clean-shaven?

It isn’t just because we like to kiss / be kissed by clean-shaven men*, because since when did the sexual or romantic preferences of women get to dominate cultural norms? Since when did our ideals even get taken into account, let alone become an oppressive social requirement? Since never, is when.

[* Anyway, kissing someone with a proper beard can be just as nice a feeling – albeit a different one – as kissing the smoothest face there is. And at least with a decent beard you won’t be caught unawares by stubble. Ouch. Maybe we like to kiss smooth men because we can close our eyes and imagine, subconsciously at least, that we are kissing women. Hehehe, evil laughter. Another possibility is that we like smooth men because they remind us of when we were girls kissing boys, and we like to pretend that we are still just a girl, just kissing a boy. That would make sense – the men win too if we believe we are girls kissing boys, that none of it is very grown up or meaningful; if we deep down understand kissing as a time when we are girls and they are boys, then we won”t act as full-grown women or make grown-up demands on the other person… Hm, stuff.]

So anyway – if the pressure to shave isn’t for snogging purposes, why is it?

Jacob was a smooth man; Esau was a hairy man.
And Esau, trusting Esau – got screwed.
No wonder our value system prioritises the smooth men – we have the bible to prove that hairy ones get screwed.

And it is probably no coincidence that, as noted above, shaving helps a person stay younger-looking, which is so the thing to be, right? Adolescents don’t have beards; nothing says “old man” like big ol’ beard.

In this regard, of course, men’s oppression is very different from women’s oppression in kind if not in form. We are expected to shave our body hair (all/most of it) so that we can be marked out as the infantilised and subjugated sex class, so that we can present as pre-pubescent and therefore as non-threatening – on pain of disgust, on pain of exclusion, on pain of hear and hate. The same does not apply to men because they are not infantilised, subjugated, unmanned or de-clawed by this pressure to shave.

Perhaps this stamp of youth helps men in patriarchy to prove their thrusting, virile status as members of the dominant class, to gain acceptance within patriarchy.

Or maybe – am I cynical enough yet? – it is quite simply a matter of marketing. How many razors, blades, gels, lotions and other assorted shaving paraphernalia would Gillette and their ilk sell, if we valued a hairy chin instead of a naked one?

I have been neglecting my poor old blog of late, as I’ve worked on white noise and learned some things about my own white privileged attitudes and behaviours. Mostly I’ve been learning how much of a clue I haven’t got. Ho-hum. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish East of Eden so I can get on with reading something more enlightening, and the search for Pink Rabbit goes on… you wouldn’t believe how much money he is making by selling himself on Ebay.

And in the midst of all this, what I want to write about is knickers.

The other day I was walking past Debenhams in Gloucester and I was just struck by the lingerie displayed in the windows on mannequins. Honestly, I wish I’d had a camera. It just struck me how flimsy and hateful these items of “clothing” really are. I’m not just talking about those stupid strings at the back that cut your bum in half, I’m talking about the fronts, I’m talking about the bottoms.

I don’t know about your body, but for me the area of flesh that a pair of comfortable knickers needs to cover is a pretty fair size. I want a gusset that covers my entire vulva, and then I want the fabric at the front to cover all my hairy bits and leave a wide enough band of fabric for the sides to be comfortable against my hips and for the back to keep itself well out of my bumcrack.

Do these knickers look comfy to you?

The gusset can’t possible cover a vulva fully. Just by looking at it I can feel labial irritation. And the sides are so stringy that they would either fall off you or cut into you. But the front? How can a woman wear this without removing her pubic hair? Is she to have fuzzy bits exposed all around? Somehow I think not, since that furry image is in no way compatible with the sleekness that these lingerie makers are trying to sell. There is a reason why all lingerie models are completely hairless down there.

How about these knickers? Look comfy to you? Those strings again, and this time the front is actually transparent. Nowhere for your ugly pubes to hide. Wax or be damned.

I mean, seriously, when we have to buy knickers like this to please our husbands or boyfriends* – how can we retain our dignity? How can we avoid the conclusion that that hair down there has got to go. Or at least, that it has got to be tamed, trimmed, perhaps delicately sculpted into a heart shape and pinked with Betty dye?

[*I don’t do that stuff any more, and as long as I remain free I will never go back to it – but there was a time, young’uns, when I too believed that “sexy” (as defined) was the thing to be. Thank you feminism.]

And I mean, seriously, when we wear these string-gusseted torture devices, and it irritates our labia – how can we avoid (if feminism hasn’t taught us better) wondering whether our protruding labia are the problem? If we can’t even wear comfortable knickers, then how can we sensibly resist the cosmetic surgeons who promise that they can correct the “problems of discomfort” that stem from our “enlarged labia”*?

[*Yes, they do – see here and here – what contempt for woman they have.]

Well, it worked so well last time… So instead of just having a moan over at Erika’s place, I wrote a letter to the BBC:

Dear Over To You team

I have been increasingly upset by some of the comments that presenters have made over a number of recent stories in the news on the subject of steps being taken to address the serious problems that women face as a result of the fashion industry’s dangerous “size zero” culture.

The particular stories I am thinking of include: restrictions introduced in Brazil regarding the age and health of fashion models; regulations introduced in Italy regarding the size of shop mannequins; and an interview with an Australian “plus size” model whose name I unfortunately cannot remember.

In various programmes your presenters made remarks trivialising and demonstrating total ignorance about the deep problems women face – both the models themselves and we “normals” who are expected to try and emulate them.

For example, in relation to the Italian story, more than one presenter made comments that showed how silly he thought the whole idea. On World Have Your Say, Ros Atkins said “I’ve never heard of sizeism” – to a caller who pointed out that the real issue was a much wider culture of making judgements about people, especially women, based on their size. Frankly, this just shows how much Mr Atkins knows and cares about it – not very much. Had it really never occurred to him that people, especially women, suffer discrimination based on their size? If not, why not?

In an unrelated programme, there was a short interview with an Australian “plus size” model. I believe she said she was a size 12 to 14: hardly enormous! I was thoroughly pleased by this piece, until the end when (after the interviewee had been cut off and could not answer back) the presenter made a throwaway comment along the lines of: “that was [the woman’s name], who is what we politely call a plus size model”. The jokey contempt in his voice was audible. To me, it was just so clear that – whatever the woman said, which was incidentally intelligent and robust – the presenter’s real view was that she was just some fat woman and that we were only being polite when we pretended to listen to her point of view or to think that she could really be desirable as a catwalk model. “Sizeism” in action.

It was an outrageous remark for him to make, in the context of what was otherwise a nice positive piece about non-skinny women.

For the Brazilian story, the emphasis was very much on the health of the models (which as far as it goes was laudable), but it was striking that no voice at all protested the idea that fashion models and fashion icons should be thin. It was accepted that the industry would always want women to be thin, that thinness is inherently desirable, and that the appetite for thin women was inevitable. The question whether any of this was true or acceptable was not even asked, never mind given proper consideration.

The BBC should be leading the way when it comes to rooting out sexist, sizeist attitudes like these. Indeed, the sensitivity with which other debates have been held shows how well you can normally handle issues of discrimination. It is unimaginable that your presenters would have acted this way if the story had been about measures taken to combat, say, racism, homophobia or ableism. Yet when the problem relates to (women’s) body size/image, your presenters seem unable to take the issue seriously, handle it sensitively, do proper research or even refrain from jokey trivialising remarks.

So – does the BBC take sexism seriously? Does the BBC care if its presenters display sexist attitudes? And, if so, what are you going to do about it?

These recent examples, by the way, are only examples. They exemplify what seems to me to be a wider problem. It seems to me that the kinds of sexism that Westerm “privileged” women live with are not taken seriously by the BBC. Gender issues that are perceived as non-threatening, such as the “no-brainer” of whether women should be allowed the vote or whether we should be free from FGM, are usually taken seriously and treated appropriately. But gender issues which are a bit closer to home, which if taken seriously would threaten and challenge Western sexism, are trivialised and marginalised.

I look forward to hearing from you

Yours faithfully

Size 10

I am not apparently guaranteed an individual reply, but nevertheless “my comments are important and will be read”. We’ll see.

Rugby tackleBelow is a passage from The Beauty Myth which made me furrow my brow with perplexity no matter how many times I read, re-read and re-analysed it.

In it, Wolf suggests that women are made more susceptible to an “outside-in” version of sexuality (in which what one looks like is more important than how one feels) because of, among other things, the “unnatural pressure” on female sexuality that “little girls are not usually intimately cared for by their fathers”. (The general point she is making is that these unnatural pressures make it harder for us to form a sexuality of our own, and easier for a false version of sexuality to be imposed upon us from without.)

The naked Iron Maiden* affects women powerfully because most are tended in infancy by women. The female body and the female breast begin as the focus of desire for the infant girl, with the male breast and body absent. As girls grow, the [beauty] myth keeps the sexual focus on the female body, but, unlike the attraction felt to it by straight men and lesbians, heterosexual women’s ungratified admiration often becomes contaminated with envy, regret for lost bliss, and hostility. This situation creates in women an addiction to men’s eyes, enforcing what the poet Adrienne Rich calls “compulsory heterosexuality,” which forbids women from seeing other women as sources of sexual pleasure at all. Under the myth, the beauty of other women’s bodies gives women pain, leading to what Kim Chernin calls our “cruel obsession with the female body”. This balked relationship – which gives straight women confused, anxious pleasure when looking at another female body – leaves women in a lifelong anguish of competition that is in fact only the poisonous residue of original love.

[*Wolf uses “the Iron Maiden”, a torture device consisting of an excruciating person-shaped prison with a beautiful woman painted onto the outside, as a metaphor for the techniques by which our culture imposes external beauty requirements on woman.]

I would venture to suggest that this is not by a long stretch the best put-together part of Wolf’s argument. (If anyone else understood it first time, let me know and I’ll send you a gold star in the post.) After much brainthinking, I have come to the conclusion that there are parts of this which ring true and other parts which do not, and that the conclusions are misplaced. So, for what it is worth, here is my take.

In infancy we get nutrition, nurture, pleasure, comfort, love and safety from our mothers – we get all that from our mother’s body and breasts (and a lot of it even if we weren’t breastfed). Consequently, the female body – and in particular the specific female body that is our mother’s – becomes the first object of desire in our tiny lives: the female body and the female breast begin as the focus of desire for any infant (girl or boy) thus nurtured by her or his mother. Now, mothers have nursed and nurtured their offspring forever, with the “male body and breast [mostly] absent” forever. If the consequnce is that we learn to love the female body before we learn to love the male body, then this must be, to my mind, a normal and expected incident of infancy. Indeed, my view is that it is a perfectly natural and healthy part of life that we should learn in infancy to view female bodies with pleasure and desire.

Given the huge importance of our mother’s body and breasts to our small minds and hearts, it would be remarkable if we did not internalise the pleasure we took in our mother’s female body to the point where it was a part of our identity, and thus perhaps a part of the sexual identity that will form as we grow and develop. However, I don’t think (unlike Wolf, from what I can make out) that our pleasure in admiring and enjoying the softness and lovingness of female bodies has to be a sexual pleasure in order for it to have the consequences we are talking about. It only has to appear capable of being or becoming a sexual pleasure for the arguments we are making here to hold good.

This is where Wolf’s reference to “compulsory heterosexuality” comes in. What she means by this is the way that patriarchy obsessively enforces heterosexuality, to the point where any pleasure that a person takes in the body of another person of the same sex becomes suspect.

Lineout jumpersWe see this in the way that men engaged in contact sports (especially team sports) have to act extra-masculine in order to prove that the pleasure they take in other men’s bodies is not a homo-erotic pleasure but a normal, healthy one – because under patriarchy homo-eroticism is neither normal nor healthy.

We also see it in the way that women are trained to view other women’s bodies.

We are not permitted to take pleasure in other women’s bodies, but we cannot stop looking at them – so the beauty myth steps in to provide a solution. The beauty myth allows us to look at another woman’s body as long as we do so in order to assess and judge her beauty. We can take a sort of pleasure in putting her down because she is not beautiful enough. We can take a sort of confessional pleasure, a masochistic pleasure, in putting ourselves down because we are not as beautiful as she is.

  • “She’s so ugly, it’s disgusting, doesn’t she even make an effort? I hate her.”
  • “She’s so beautiful, I’m so jealous, it’s not fair, I hate her.”
  • “She’s so beautiful, I want to be her, oh I hate myself.”
  • “She pretends to be beautiful, but look at that! Really she’s spotty and fat. I hate her.”

But, ultimately, these “pleasures” are not the real thing. They are not what we really want in our souls, they are merely a sop that patriarchy allows us in order to keep us from realising the truth: that real female bodies are wonderful not because of what they look like but because of the love that they can give. This is of course a second threat to the social order – because if we realised that beauty is in the love and the light, and not in the looks, we might overthrow the beauty myth, proclaim our true, fabulous beauty and demand our freedom.

Thus our innocent pleasure in the female body, posing a double threat (both to compulsory heterosexuality and to the beauty myth itself), is perverted into envy and hostility which are ultimately unsatisfying because, deep down, we know it is not what we want. Forced to repress this knowledge, forced to repress a key part of our (sexual) identity, it probably isn’t surprising that we develop a “cruel obsession with the female body”, desperate to find some acceptable outlet for the innocent need we have – the need just to be able to admire and take comfort or pleasure in thinking about or looking at a female body other than our own.

And if you were living in a place where being looked at by a woman meant either (1) that she was judging your beauty and condemning you because of it or (2) that she was objectifying you in a “disgusting” homo-erotic moment – wouldn’t you hate being looked at by women? Wouldn’t you instead develop an “addiction to men’s eyes”?

From all this, Wolf appears to suggest that it is the existence of a relationship between a grown-up non-lesbian girl-child and the bodies of other women (as representative or reminiscent of the original love of her mother’s body) that is the problem.

That may not be what she meant, but if it is then she is wrong. The problem lies in the way that this relationship is distorted by the “compulsory heterosexuality” mindset which prevents the grown-up girl child from taking her innocent pleasure in the bodies of other women. The problem lies in the way that, unable to satisfy this natural and healthy urge in a socially acceoptable way, women find an outlet in the competitive looking encouraged by the beauty myth – a competitive looking that is both harmful and unsatisfying. The problem lies in the way that, unsatisfied by the only kind of looking allowed under patriarchy, women end up developing their “cruel obsession with the female body”, and their “addiction to men’s eyes”.

Which all brings me to my central objection to what Wolf is saying here.

Her introductory words to this passage state twice that being cared for by a woman/mother instead of by a man/father is what gives rise to all this. Which is kind of true, but also kind of misleading. Because what is she suggesting? That women shouldn’t nurture their girl children? That we should accept the fact that we live in a compulsorily heterosexual society and ensure that boys are tended by women and girls by men, so that they can be properly adjusted at an early age to prevent this problematic homo-eroticism from arising in the first place?

When you put it like that, it becomes obvious that the “unnatural pressure” on female sexuality is not the fact that girl babies are rarely intimately cared for by men, but the fact that our culture is so paranoid about any suspicion of deviation from the heterosexual norm.

Because, what are tights for anyway?

For covering up your hairy ugly legs of course, and making them look smooth and leggy and nicely curvaceous and sexayyyy!!

(Meanwhile ensuring that there is no space to hide for that oh-so-hideous lard that makes them all wobbly and nonsexayyy. Just so’s you know your place.)

Er, no. Not in these parts, anyway.

Tights are for keeping your legs – hairy or otherwise – WARM. Children know this. They have nice, thick, cosy tights, available in a variety of colours and patterns.

So why oh why is it that no matter where I look the only tights I can find for grown-ups are slinky clingy not-very-warm skimpy tights? Why can I not find ANYWHERE a nice pair or three of cosy, practical, woolly, insulating tights to keep my out-in-the-frost-on-my-bike legs all lovely and WARM!

We know who to blame.

Meanwhile, I think someone could do very nicely out of “children’s stuff in grown-up sizes”.

I’m not just talking about proper tights, here, but all kinds of stuff. Ariel, for example, has some very fabulous patent (not-)leather boots with flowers on that my friend Sam* would kill for, if only they did them in grown-up sizes. And who wouldn’t want monster T-shirts and stripey dungarees and – now that it’s getting so cold outside – cuddly pyjamas with feet?

(* Name changed to protect the innocent.)

Personally, I’d settle for some warm tights.

I promised a TV review and here one is: my thoughts on coverage of this year’s Horse of the Year Show.

Equestrianism is not renowned for its egalitarianism – the costs of owning and training top-class horses are phenomenal and only the privileged could even think of serious participation in the posher horsey sports like dressage, three-day-eventing and show-jumping.

Nevertheless, what is notable about those posher horsey sports is that they make no distinctions between particpants on the ground of gender. Women and men compete on equal terms. And the women do well.

For example, take the Pony Club Games at this year’s HOYS. The games are fun, fast, furious and seriously competitive – the ponies and riders demonstrate remarkable speed, agility, athleticism and commitment. There is no restriction on who can ride – aside from the obvious point that only younger, lighter people ride ponies – but nevertheless I didn’t notice any boys or men at all. The competitors were, as far as I could tell, all girls and young women. They were terrific.

In the serious show-jumping events, there are numerous successful women too. The great Whitaker clan has produced Ellen Whitaker, for example. Aged only 20, she has already been selected to ride for Great Britain, and was at that time described as a “teenaged showjumping sensation”. She won the Speed Horse of the Year competition at this year’s HOYS.

Imagine then, if you will, a television interview with Ms Whitaker, clearly a serious contender in many of the prestige events of the show.

Perhaps alarm bells are already ringing when the caption flashes up to describe her as Britain’s leading “lady rider” (ugh). When the conversation soon turns to Whitaker’s alternative career as a model you know you are doomed. When she begins to make comments about how she has to worry if in training her hands get marked up by the reins, because when she is modelling jewellery afterwards her hands will not look good enough for the photo shoot, you just want to give up right now. I bet the male riders don’t have to worry about such things, models or not.

And she still wins the top level classes. Nice work.

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