Awareness is All

Recently I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my take on feminism. It informs most of my blog posts, and indeed I started this blog (in part) to retain a public ‘voice’ when I was being silenced in a very male environment. I generally don’t use words like ‘feminism’, ‘patriarchy’ and ‘women’s rights’ in my posts because I know they can attract unwanted attention and put some people off what I’m trying to say, but all of those things inform my writing, and I think about them every day.

But today I’m saying it out loud. My name is Lisa and I am a feminist. I haven’t always been, but it’s become an important part of my life in the past few years, with the rise of the female voice, particularly in social media.

Last week I went to the launch of Polly Vernon’s Hot Feminist book in Waterstones Piccadilly. She is a journalist I really enjoy keeping up with, both in her Grazia magazine column and her Twitter feed. She is a strong voice in contemporary British culture and I’m interested in what she had to say. I’d heard her on the radio the day before and been surprised when I found myself disagreeing with her stance on feminism – and it took me a while to process it. She is in favour of a ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ take on women’s rights, stating that she’s quite happy to let a bit of manspreading, all-male panel shows and wolf-whistling go by, in order to concentrate on the ‘big’ issues of rape, the pay gap, female genital mutilation (FGM) and abortion rights. She states that she loves fashion, beauty and staying skinny, but maintains that these are things entirely for her own love of them, and nothing to do with doing them for men. At the same time she says she loves being sexy and fanciable. Hmm.

This is where she and I part company on the subject. To me, all of the small stuff that objectifies and demeans women gives rise to the big stuff like rape culture, and there is no doubt that an urge to be sexy and fanciable to men comes from socialisation among women to do so from a young age. Fashion, beauty and body-consciousness come from the same source but Vernon is unable to see the connection between these elements. She has rebadged them as her own desires, seemingly completely unaware of where they came from.

This is when I realised what sort of feminist I am – one that advocates awareness. I am all in favour of women doing exactly what they want – whether it’s being a housewife, making a living in sex work, living for fashion or a being a glamour model – as long as they know WHY they have the urge do those things. We’ve been socialised to want to please men, be sexy and beautiful for them and be their homemakers while they go out to work. If you decide to turn that into a way of life or a way of making a living, then that is your right, but just know why you’re doing it and be happy. Like Vernon, I want to be sexy and fanciable too, and I love the odd ‘hello beautiful’ comment, but I know why I want those things. I try not to need them, as a way of managing my expectations, but the urge is there and I know where it comes from. I’m not going to pretend that I want to look sexy purely for myself.

Similarly, men have been socialised to objectify girls and women, to see them as something they are entitled to comment on, touch and have sex with. Relatively few men are aware of that fact, which is why there is a such a backlash from them when we refuse to accept their comments or have sex with them or when we say we want Page 3 removed from our papers and more women on panel shows. We’re rejecting a thing that is so ingrained in our culture that many people, men and women, refuse to believe it’s actually there. They think we’re making a fuss. In fact, the main reaction I’ve had from (mainly male) friends when they’ve asked about my feminism is a questioning whether what I’m saying is actually true. I believe that the scale of it is so massive that they’d rather deny it’s even there or that they might be party to that male sense of entitlement to women.

I usually point them in the direction of Laura Bates’ excellent 2014 article: “10 common comments on feminist blogposts”. The very first comment, that ‘this is not an issue specific to any gender’, cites the statistical evidence (from 2012) that floors any argument to the contrary. Women are not yet equal to men in any sexual, political, or economic arena and yet Twitter is filled with people arguing with feminists to prove that what they’re talking about is real with yet more facts and statistics. We certainly have them, but why should we keep having to prove it? To me it feels like the science vs creationism argument – the science behind feminism is so obvious to me that saying that it doesn’t exist feels like I’m arguing with someone who maintains the world was built in seven days by a man with a beard in the sky. I might as well give up. But I’m not going to stop believing in it.

I can understand why men feel under attack from feminists because we are directly attacking the male bias in our society – otherwise known as ‘patriarchy’. It’s not their actual individual fault that it’s there, but many men feel as though we are saying it is. We’re not. They’re a victim of it too – does no one think that there is a correlation between the high rate of suicide among young men and the pressure on them from a young age conform to traditions of masculinity? I’m fascinated by the subject, and Shakespeare was too. His tragedies are littered with men who fail to conform to the norm and are angst-ridden and suicidal because of it.

If you’ve grown up in a culture of male privilege and entitlement, where you are the privileged one, then you’re not really going to have a clear counter-view you, are you? Just accept that, and be aware that this social system has an effect on you, as well as all the women around you. If you’re a young woman who thinks there’s no need for feminism because ‘we’re already equal’, just know that we’re not. Yet. If you’re a young man who says he has a ‘problem with feminists’, stop and think about what you are saying. You are saying that you don’t approve of equality for women. Most men I’ve met who’ve said that clearly don’t believe in inequality.

Awareness, awareness, awareness. That’s all I’m saying.

This is my feminism.

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The Enlightenment

Yesterday was a day that featured both the demise of Page Three in The Sun (unconfirmed) and a celebrity reality TV show featuring at least two former glamour models. Four of the female houseguests have had cosmetic surgery (five if you count the one that left earlier in the week) and one of them has had eighteen boob jobs and umpteen attempts to make herself look like Barbie with cosmetic surgery.

Call me a genius, but it doesn’t take much to see that there’s a connecting story here. I watched with horror as Alicia Douvall – she of the eighteen boob jobs – recounted that she’d only just learned ‘letters and shapes’ with her three-year-old daughter and that all that mattered to her was having great ‘tits’ and to be ‘fuckable’ to men. Oh dear god.

A male Twitter follower seemed surprised when he observed that Alicia’s self-esteem was clearly tied to being desirable to men. Well, yeah. Don’t men know that most straight women tie their self-esteem to being desirable to men from an early age and that we are encouraged to do so for the rest of our lives? It seems they don’t, and I am surrounded by well-meaning men of all ages who tell me that this sort of thing doesn’t exist. They genuinely don’t see it. They’re not in a world where it matters how fuckable they are but they constantly rate women on how desirable they are. It’s the Way Things Are.

I grew up in a household where The Sun and Titbits were the main sources of reading material. A typical ’70s upbringing involved watching Miss World with your dad, and all voting on the ones you thought were the prettiest ladies, commenting on their hips, their boobs, their hair. I loved it. I thought about which one of dance troupe Legs & Co I’d like to be when I grew up (Cherry Gillespie) and I looked at the Page 3 girls and hoped I’d look like Linda Lusardi when I was older. I blushed when various family members and friends would comment on my body – no part of it was left unscrutinised by the people that surrounded me, male and female. I’d say that started around the age of eight.

Even before her death in her 70s, my mum would still comment on my clothes, body, hair or face whenever I saw her. It was like a default setting and it is still a really common first point of conversation between women. You often get ‘nice hair’ or ‘did you lose weight?’ before you’re asked about your Actual Life. I now make a point of only saying stuff like that once all the important things are out of the way, but I still say it, mainly because I know it will boost the confidence of the woman hearing it.

In my twenties and thirties, once my crippling body-image problems had left me (go figure) I just got used to the running commentary on my appearance and I enjoyed the ‘game’ of being attractive to men. Like many young women, I looked for constant affirmation and got it from friends and passing strangers. I got a kick out of looking good and being sexually attractive. It was fun. It is fun. Losing a significant amount of weight in my late thirties gave me another confidence boost and the attention I got rocketed. I thrived on it for years.

It’s only recently, having done all the man-pleasing sexy dresses, heels and lingerie things, that I’ve realised what I was doing. And why I so don’t need to do it now. I don’t need male attention, approval or commentary to exist. Much of the commentary is designed to objectify you and confirm a sense of entitlement to your body, and it’s no longer something I would seek out.

I wonder if this sort of enlightenment only happens when you hit a certain age, and this is the reason why there is often a tension between younger and older women on the subject. Hearing Katie Hopkins and Michelle Visage suggest to Alicia Douvall in the Big Brother house that she could try just being herself, without the tits, seemed to demonstrate that nicely.

Often, young women (and men) hit back and accuse older women of being ugly, undesirable and just plain jealous of them. What if we can see what you’re doing and just want you to make you aware of what’s happening to you? In their desire to become sexually desirable both Alicia and Katie Price wrecked perfectly beautiful young faces and bodies. That, in my view, is a damn shame.

I think young women aspire to be Page Three models because it empowers them in a world where their primary currency is sexual desirability. I really am all for women owning their sexuality – god knows I do – and having the right to take an active part in the free expression of it, but I’d just like them to know the context in which they are doing it. Their bodies are the primary expression of womanhood in a national newspaper that is being viewed by eight-year-old Lisas who aspire to be them, and learn that their only currency is youth, beauty (in a narrowly defined sense) and sex. They should know that in the same newspaper, women are vilified for being as sexually active as men. The only acceptable face of womanhood is a meek, static, exposed one on Page Three.

By all means, be part of a world where female sexuality is celebrated in all its diversity – be part of the tribe of women who make money from their bodies in webcam accounts, table dancing, erotic imagery and female-friendly porn. Just know that this is a world where we are objectified and forced to fit a stereotype from an early age. Ask yourself if what you are doing is a free expression of your sexuality and the body you were born with.

Just ask the question.