Debating on behalf of the No More Page3 campaign can sometimes feel like a thankless task, but it certainly helps to hone your opinions and arguments when you are constantly challenged on your beliefs. I have been thinking lately about the argument that comes up time and time again about women who oppose Page3 as being ugly, bitter harridans, jealous of the models’ looks because they are not beautiful enough to be models themselves. This is in fact one of the most popular points of view expressed by opponents of the campaign, and it always makes me ponder, because a) it is one of the most popular points of view expressed by opponents of the campaign, and b) I am *actually* not beautiful enough to be a model myself. So – maybe they have a point…?
Well, except no…
I have thought carefully about whether or not I appreciate beauty enough, and whether my own lack of the required standard might influence my views. When I am told repeatedly by Page3 fans that it is a question of ‘seeing, valuing and celebrating women’s beauty and sexuality’, it can make me feel a bit churlish for not joining the party, for miserably finding the whole premise problematic. Because the real question is not whether some women are ugly and therefore jealous of other women who are beautiful, it’s the fact that we are framing women in these terms at all. Hordes of people, as far as I know, aren’t spending all night on Twitter defending and arguing about MALE beauty. Beauty is a concept, and it is a concept which has traditionally been identified with the female, but it is still only a concept, divorced from a real human being. There have always been women famous for their beauty, from Helen of Troy onwards, and the idea of beauty being a female attribute which is desirable above all others has permeated art, literature and history throughout the ages. Conversely, and famously, Anne of Cleves was too ugly for Henry VIII to bear consummating his marriage to her. Female beauty is very very important. You don’t want to be one of the ugly ones.
When modern men talk about their right to look at beautiful sexy women, there is often the claim (the excuse) that this is a natural urge which historically men have always had, and that to go against it is somehow to go against nature itself. The argument is that men are hardwired to want to look at sexy women, to the point that it is cruel and unnatural to attempt to restrict their access by, say, removing a daily picture in a newspaper. Fair enough if you believe that, but to these men I say that in order for you to assert your ‘natural’ sexual characteristics, a woman often has to repress hers. It is not ‘natural’ for a woman to be an object: she may take the role in order to please a man, or to earn some money, but she is not ‘hardwired’ to do it. It is not ‘natural’ female sexuality to pose passively and obediently and to subsume her own desires in favour of the male’s. In the past the male of the species has been capable, I believe, of mating with a female without the benefit of readily-accessible images to feed his desire, despite all this talk of hardwiring and male ‘needs’.
What is undoubtedly natural is for people to fancy eachother and to want to have sex with eachother. Everything else is culturally determined, and therefore organised according to the prevalent beliefs of the day: homosexual and mixed-race relationships, adultery, monogamy, polygamy, covering up, letting it all hang out, being a ‘slut’ or a ‘prude’… all these ideas are invented and policed by the societies we live in, and are therefore changeable. The same goes for beauty and desirability: there is not one gold standard that men simply can’t resist, and there never has been. There are well-known examples of the lengths some cultures have gone to in order to constrain women’s lives with extreme and dangerous ideals of desirability: the Chinese practice of foot-binding, some African and Asian societies’ elongating neck rings, and the practice of female genital mutilation are all examples of the ways in which women have been forced to conform to a damaging ideal in order to be attractive to a potential husband. I’m guessing that the men who claim that their love of Page3 is only natural male behaviour are not ALSO lusting after the above examples of beauty. That will be because it’s not natural, it’s culturally conditioned.
In our own culture the beautiful, sexy, desirable attributes of women have been commodified to the point where often the real woman is left behind. Whereas Cleopatra for example was a woman *renowned for* her beauty (that is, a woman first), today Page 3 gives us the beauty without the woman: beauty (or ‘hotness’) has become an end in itself and the individual has been erased. Tina, 19, from Weymouth, doesn’t really exist, she’s become the sum of her parts, interchangeable with other young women who fit the template. This ‘ideal’ is as manufactured as the other examples of female beauty mentioned above. Today’s beautiful women are constrained by the need to be waxed and groomed to acceptable modern standards, to the point where there is a widely held disgust for natural female body hair even for those women (the majority) who are not in the beauty business. The ‘correct’ body type has been selected and repeatedly refined so that it now rules out 95% of women. Cosmetic surgery and invasive procedures are acceptable and promoted, so that the idea of cutting a body up for the sake of beauty is becoming normalised. The boob job has replaced foot-binding as the acceptable face of female bodily mutilation in the quest for desirability.
When certain sexist men take up the subject of FGM as their feminist cause celebre, I can’t help feeling that they do so partly because they don’t stand to lose anything by it. It is not their culture so it is not their sexual ideal that is being challenged. When they use the FGM issue to throw ridicule on the NoMorePage3 campaign, as Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of the Sun, is fond of doing, I am even more suspicious. At the risk of generating a few ”NMP3ers say Page3 causes FGM!!!” headlines, I would say there is a link between cultures which are prescriptive about the representation of female sexuality to the point where surgical procedures are a normal part of the picture. The more that men like Neil Wallis insist upon their right to view photos of slim, large-breasted, airbrushed, photoshopped, clear-skinned and glossy-haired young white women every day over their morning coffee, the more they are encouraging the view that to attain acceptable standards of beauty today a little bit of surgery might be needed. But to acknowledge that possibility would be to risk losing the privilege of access to your particular sexual preferences.
What starts off looking like a celebration of female beauty and sexuality quite clearly becomes an issue of power and control when challenged, and in a culture plastered with a wallpaper of sexualised images of women it is hard to stand up and be the ‘ugly’ one. When I argue against Page 3 I am quite sure I am not arguing against beauty. To ‘celebrate’ women by erasing what makes them unique and insisting they conform to an increasingly narrow ideal is to promote their object-ness, and as a woman myself I’ve always had the radical idea that I am human. I love beauty as much as the next person, but an object of beauty is still an object.