A few months ago, I was discussing the layout of the next article animatedly with my editor. He seemed unusually friendly and kept looking away from my face. When he turned away, I realised that I’d been leaning over the desk, pushing my breasts together, and had a lot of cleavage showing. Although I wasn’t being terribly indecent, I was crashingly ashamed and humiliated. Suddenly, I wasn’t a journalist with good ideas for the headline feature, I was an intern with a killer cleavage. I never asked for this. I despise the fact that I can’t avoid presenting as sexual if I take any care over my appearance.
A recent study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that 18% of women would rather give up 10 years of their lives than be obese, and up to 30% would rather be severely depressed and slender than fat and happy. The majority of women will clock up countless hours and sometimes spend money they can’t afford in the name of ‘grooming’, and however many useless hours we put in, we already know we’ll never be good enough, not compared to the perfect airbrushed creatures gurning at us from a thousand posters, tv adverts, movies and magazine racks every day. We’re clever enough to have worked that one out for ourselves, but we do it anyway, because we’ve been raised in the certain knowledge that if we’re not pretty, we’re not worth anything.
Facebook, the cussing blind oracle of the modern world, informs me that I’m statistically not unattractive, and we all know that facebook cannot lie. I was never one of those girls at school. In fact, I was the sort of teenager who sat up late popping her whiteheads and weeping whilst listening to Janis Ian on repeat . But suddenly I’m twenty-one, my skin has cleared up (thank you, the combined pill) and I find myself worthy of a certain amount of hassle on public transport. Lucky, lucky me. Suddenly instead of invisible, ‘pretty’ is what I am, before I’m a journalist or a reader or a sister or a lover or a friend.
And this is something that men can be forgiven for not understanding. Men have the option of not presenting as sexual, but women don’t – particularly not conventionally attractive women, and particularly not in a professional environment. Whatever I’m wearing, wherever I’m going, I’m now a sexual being whether I want to be or not. Because of my curves, my tits, the body I was born in, people stare at me on the underground to and from work, and I can’t do anything about it, even though it’s an erasure of personhood that prickles on the skin. A close friend, who happens to be extremely empirically and personally beautiful, recently confided in me that
‘Since I started having it horribly brought to my attention that I fit one of the standard images [of female beauty], and since I started to get really creeped out and threatened by it rather than just irritated, I’ve hard to work very hard at being comfortable with my own sexuality. I feel that those strangers’ eyes steal it from me.‘
There is no freedom, for the young women of my generation, to define beauty in the way we want it, particularly not in the working world where a reasonable level of conventional dressing is expected. This is a sexuality that’s imposed rather than joyfully accepted. A sexuality that any ogling guy is implicitly invited to participate in, with no assumption that we enjoy being stared at. That’s not the point. Living in a body that’s conventionally sexy means that you are there for others’ enjoyment, not your own edification and certainly not for your own pleasure. And the more I feel lightly, ocularly raped every time I get on public transport, the less I feel I want to engage with my own sexuality in private. When you’re a pretty woman, it’s easy to feel like your sexuality is not your own, like your body is not your own. It’s taken from you, and then sold back to you, every day, by the eyes of a thousand strangers. It makes you feel alien within your own skin. It makes you dissasociate from what you’re told is your own sexuality. Since I sharpened up for work and learned to walk in high heels, I don’t ‘feel’ sexy. I just feel angry.
In addition to the objectification of women, the media commits another assault on the dignity of women. This assault is the dismemberment of women, and it has not received the attention it deserves. – Kaycey D. Greening, Capital University.
Don’t, don’t for one second give me that crap about men having it just as bad. Men have no idea how bad it gets. The worn old argument that society has standards for everyone, not just women, and gosh, it sucks for straight white men too is universally the first part of a syllogism used by bigots, misogynists and defenders of the status quo. Men do not have to make the same power choices that women have to make when they are young. Men do not find themselves defined by how perky their tits and ass are, how bright their eyes, how high their heels, how bouncy their hair, how small their waist. Men do not struggle to remember what their own sexuality actually is under all the viral marketing. Little boys know that they are more than a set of numbers. Little girls learn to forget it.
And don’t, don’t for a second hit me with well, women judge other women far more harshly than men, so it must all be fine – because there is such a thing as the morality of slaves. Yes, women also judge other women, and no, that doesn’t make those judgements okay, but hell, if we’re going to be slaves then at least we can be the best slaves, and maybe one day they’ll be grateful, and talk to us like human beings, and maybe some day we or our daughters will be free. For examples of strong, powerful young women being reduced to physical, sexual beings, I need point no further than the Jessica Valenti Breast Controversy (say it ten times fast).
Why don’t we change? Because we’re persuaded that we have so much to lose. So we continue to pluck, shave, starve, bleach, shop, polish, powder and wax until we can feel the weariness in our bones and the more we lay them down for approval, the less we own our bodies, sexually and otherwise.