An Object of Beauty is still an Object

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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Happy Birthday No More Page 3 !

I wrote this blog a whole year ago, to celebrate the first birthday of the NoMorepage3 Campaign and the diversity of its supporters. Whilst I would rather there not be the need for a second birthday, this year there is even more to celebrate. Signatures stand at over 200,000, the campaign has attracted support from many more politicians, including Ed Milliband, more and more groups and associations, such as the Girls Brigade and Mumsnet have added their voices, and the media coverage has grown and grown. On top of that, the Sun’s Irish edition has dropped the Page3 feature, and, despite increasingly desperate efforts at promotion such as the misguided CheckemTuesday feature and the failed World Cup giveaway, sales of the Sun have been decreasing all year.The NoMorePage3 Campaign has sponsored some fantastic women sports stars: Cheltenham Town Ladies FC, Nottingham Forest Ladies FC and Scottish mountain biking champion Lee Craigie all now wear NMP3 kit. Over the year lots of regional NMP3 groups have sprung up to capitalise on local support and bring fresh energy and ideas to the campaign. More than all that though is the raising of consciousness which has been achieved by this campaign: media sexism is a talking point again and is part of a bigger picture where women’s lives and voices are being listened to and debated. It’s a very exciting time and the NMP3 campaign has added hugely to it. Here’s what I wrote a year ago, with thanks to all you diverse and wonderful supporters out there, and to the team at HQ that work so tirelessly for all of us:

I have been following the No More Page 3 campaign for a year now, ever since its inception in August 2012. I have watched it grow from a few signatures and Lucy Anne Holmes all on her own, to over 115,000 signatures and a whole team of dedicated campaigners. I have followed the website, the blog, Twitter and Facebook, I have joined in many discussion threads and I have read many articles and blogs that the campaign has linked to or recommended. I have been to a flash mob, to an NUJ event on media sexism and a fantastic Stand up for Women comedy gig, and I’ve met lots of lovely people (that’s YOU, the nmp3 team…!)

It has been a fantastic year, to witness the growth of a movement, and to hear women’s voices, from all backgrounds and walks of life, all coming together to denounce the outmoded sexism of Page 3, and to do something about it. In the process this brilliant campaign has garnered the support of celebrities, charities, unions and the Girl Guides, amongst others, and has had increasing media attention. This subject is now well and truly on the agenda : thanks to the hard work of all involved, it will not go away!

So it AMAZES me that there are still people out there who characterise the campaigners as a group of hairy, ugly, jealous, humourless feminists… The one thing the group ISN’T is one-dimensional, consisting as it does of a huge range of people with different experiences and reasons for signing. So I thought it would be nice to celebrate the campaign’s birthday by making a list of all the different reasons for support that I have noticed throughout the year, and in that way celebrate the diversity of the people who have become involved in the campaign and contributed to it.

So – here’s my list. It is by no means a comprehensive survey, I’ve probably left some people out, and I apologise in advance for any lazy, inaccurate cultural stereotyping…  But here goes :

  • Teachers : ‘Images like this can be brought into school and they are partly responsible for an increase in sexual bullying’
  • Politicians : ‘Exploitation and early sexualisation of girls creates a problem for society’
  • Men : ‘We want the women in our lives to be treated with respect’
  • Women of colour : ‘It’s another expression of the white beauty ideal – it’s racist as well as sexist’
  • Breast-feeding mums : ‘The over-sexualisation of breasts makes it more difficult to breast-feed in public’
  • *even some* Sun readers : ‘Not bothered about the boobs to be honest, I mainly buy it for the football’
  • Feminists : ‘Unequal representation of women – men are usually pictured fully-dressed but women have to be half-naked’
  • Psychologists : ‘Sexual objectification leads to negative stereotyping and the risk of stereotype threat’
  • People of faith : ‘Sex is a private matter between consenting adults within a loving relationship’
  • Parents : ‘We don’t want our kids to come across these images in cafes, trains and other public places where people leave them’
  • The body-concious : ‘I don’t want to be reminded of my imperfections every day’
  • Women’s groups : ‘ Over-sexual representation of women can provide a context in which rape culture can flourish’
  • Social historians : ‘The Sun’s decision to provide soft porn in a newspaper paved the way for the re-branding of porn in lads mags’
  • *even some* Glamour models : ‘It’s not glamorous, it’s demeaning’
  • The working class : ‘Don’t patronise us with boobs in the paper!’
  • Prudes : ‘Disgusting!’
  • Guardian readers : ‘The whole paper is scum, get rid of all the other pages while you’re at it’
  • Artists : ‘Beauty is the human body as nature intended it, not the airbrushed, photoshopped version’
  • Health professionals : ‘Seeing over-idealised body shapes all the time can lead to problems such as depression and eating disorders’
  • Lesbian/gay/bi/trans people : ‘Heteronormative!’
  • Philosophers : ‘In an arena set aside for ‘news’ this is essentially a lie being told every day’
  • Young people : ‘Is that what we have to aspire to…?’
  • Older people : ‘It was bad enough when it was just the Sun, but now it’s the Star and the Sport as well’
  • Even older people : ‘Put them away love, you’ll catch your death…’
  • People who love sex : ‘It pushes the idea of a narrow male fantasy rather than celebrating female sexuality’
  • Family members : ‘I wouldn’t want it to be my mother/sister/daughter’
  • Foreign visitors: ‘You still have naked ladies in the NEWSpaper?? WE stopped doing that YEARS ago…!’
  • And then there’s me – I’m one of those humourless strident feminists. Well, somebody’s got to be…

PS If you haven’t signed the NoMorePage3 campaign yet here’s the link https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/david-dinsmore-take-the-bare-boobs-out-of-the-sun-nomorepage3