As a university student I am presented with the visible changes that feminism has led to. The once exclusively male world of academia, is now equally represented by female bodies. As a result, it is understandable why so many no longer believe feminism to be of relevance. However, if a moment is taken to watch these students more closely, something is amiss. While the men walk around, strong and able, full of energy and life, the women seem to be struggling. For some strange reason though, this image does not fit with the one we are sold. Repeatedly, we are reminded that these women have rights now. They have power and respect, neither held back or restrained by any external force. Yet in spite of this, an ever constant, internal torture exists, actualised by how thin and frail so many of them are. The ludicrousness of this scene does not lie in the starvation itself, but instead at the apparent acceptance of this as the norm. It has reached the point where emaciated woman are seen as the standard. Naomi Wolf (1991) in her book “The Beauty Myth” highlights the fact that as women’s rights in society rose, the average weight of women in the media plummeted. As a result we are constantly bombarded with images of unhealthily thin women portrayed as the desirable norm. Not to mention the intrinsic associations thinness now has with success. As a supposed backlash to the trend towards an ever-skeletal form, the phrase “real woman” has found a place in popular culture. However, in a world where ‘fatness’ makes you ‘real’, thinness, by contrast, elevates you above mere mortals, into goddesslike status. At best, the implications of such a concept are patronising, at worst it promotes an underlying message concerning hierarchy, reinforcing competition between young women. Such competition divides the female population, underpinned by a fear of one another. At a time where physically vulnerable woman need support, they are instead played off against each another, the glory of winning, personified in the unattainable, and ultimately life threatening.
We are fed the line that feminism is out of date, and that sexism is no longer prominent in western society. This idea goes hand in hand with the negative connotations now associated with the movement. Rather than question the motives behind those responsible for encouraging such a consensus, women increasingly seem to be buying into it as reality. Whether due to conscious manipulation or patriarchal hegemony, men are using the media to talk to woman, and the message they are sending is clear. To be a success, to be desirable, to obtain worth, is to be thin. Where such resistance to feminism ought to inspire woman, instead we are distracted and weakened by an internal struggle. While feminists continue to be portrayed as androgynous, aggressive, man haters, irrational and over the top in their beliefs, images of extreme sexual objectification are eroding our media and minds. Somewhere along the line it became so common place to see woman objectified in this manner, that to say anything against it was to be accused of being “up tight”, “politically correct” or god forbid, a “feminist”. The strength and determination, which is takes to fight back against such imagery, now so strongly a part of accepted popular culture, is not possessed by those women starving themselves in an attempt to override their natural shape and form.
The fashionable female physique is one that aggressively goes against what her body wants to be. Fat is fertility, and in essence womanhood. Not only does it aesthetically separate us from men, contributing to the softness that cultivates in our curves, but also is essential for conception. It represents the power of the female body. Yet the “ideal” portrayal of womanhood is one of protruding bones, pubescent in appearance. On the other hand, the male ideal encourages strength in muscle, empathising the natural development of a man’s biology. Naomi Woolf argues that when femaleness, in the form of fat, is seen as undesirable, then femaleness itself and womanhood as a whole are equally judged as wrong. So much of the apparent equality we experience is confined to the standards set by men. Feminism is again misrepresented in the belief that equality signifies duplicating male behaviour. Feminism has been twisted to encourage competitiveness, aggression, and the general sense that to be respected by men, we must behave accordingly. This is no more poignant than in the apparently trivial slogan of “girl power” pronounced by the 1990’s pop group, “the spice girls”. When the group were asked what ‘girl power’ meant to them, “Geri” (the “outrageous” red head) responded with:
“Girl power is . . . when you reply to wolf whistles by shouting ‘Get your arse out!” (Walter 1999).
This offers up a somewhat distorted idea of equality. Once you disregard the unpleasantness of the statement, all that is left is a frighteningly naïve and potentially damaging message. By this interpretation, not only is ‘girl power’ defined by mutual disrespect, but it also opens up the door for increasingly derogative attitudes towards women to go unnoticed. Belittling men in general, however unacceptable, does not have the same political implications as it would, were the same directed at women. The contexts by which men and woman have arrived at their positions in society today are not equal nor the same and therefore the impact of negative treatment cannot be said to be equal either. The devastating abuse women have historically been subjected to, still have its footings deep in society’s unconscious. Reducing women to nothing more than mere stereotypes, even under the pretence of a “joke”, reinforces the unspoken truth left over from past generations, that women are less than. Women’s emaciated, sexualised bodies are used as a devise to make men money, and keep woman in their place. More offensive still is the way in which women’s liberation is used as a justification for these increasingly dehumanised portrayals of woman. We are told that feminism allowed women the right to choose, and yet, watching the average female student, overwhelmed by this apparent choice, they do not look free.
Walter, N (1999) The New Feminism, pg 118, (Virago Press).
Wolf, N (1991) The Beauty Myth: How images of beauty are used against women. (Vintage Publications).