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Feminism is so last century. Surely in today's world the idea is irrelevant and unfashionable? Wrong. Since the turn of the millennium a revitalised feminist movement has emerged to challenge these assumptions. Based on a survey of over a thousand feminists, Reclaiming the F Word reveals the what, why and how of today's feminism, from cosmetic surgery to celebrity culture, from sex to singleness and now, in this new edition, the gendered effects of possibly the worst economic crisis ever. This is a generation-defining book demanding nothing less than freedom and equality, for all.
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Reclaiming the F Word
By Catherine Redfern, Kristin Aune
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2013 Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune
All rights reserved.
Imagine a world where losing sleep over one's weight or obsessing about wrinkles isn't considered integral to being female, where women and men can wear whatever they want without ridicule or reprisals, where women and girls are healthy and happy with themselves and their bodies. Sadly, our world is not like this.
Our bodies are the only thing we truly own in life. Inhabiting our bodies joyfully and deciding what happens to them should be human rights. The women we talked to during our research wanted this. Yet female bodies are battlegrounds; the world is full of people and institutions that tell us how we should feel about our bodies and what we should do with them.
Compared to the 1970s, when the last wave of feminism was at its peak, younger women's lives are better in many ways. But where the body's concerned, things are much worse. Twenty years ago, Naomi Wolf pointed out that just as women were gaining economic power, the beauty backlash emerged to counter their gains. For her, as for radical feminists Susan Brownmiller and Sheila Jeffreys before and after her, beauty ideals are patriarchal – they are a means by which men (or at least some men) control women. 'The beauty myth is not about women at all', Wolf writes, 'It is about men's institutions and institutional power.' Other feminists rightly countered that adornment can be empowering, and racist, classist and ageist beauty ideals exist alongside patriarchal ones. But Wolf's argument still resonates. Older feminists' protests against bras and high heels seem tame compared to today's pressures: girls' self-esteem has hit rock bottom; eating disorders have mushroomed; media images of female bodies are thinner and less achievable; women have cosmetic surgery not out of vanity but to feel 'normal'; and younger women feel under pressure to remove their body hair in a manner once peculiar to porn stars.
If women in affluent nations are under such strain, the global outlook is worse. In developing countries, over half a million die each year during pregnancy and childbirth because of inadequate medical care. Two million women in Africa, Asia and the Middle East live with the debilitating stigma of fistula (a hole in the birth canal that develops during a prolonged labour without medical intervention). Lack of access to reproductive and health-care services is the major contributor to the rising rates of HIV among poor young women. Young women are now more often HIV positive than young men, since they are unlikely to be educated about prevention and, without economic assets, lack the ability to demand that their male partners use condoms. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an established practice in more than thirty countries, and increasingly emerges in Western countries with immigrant populations from FGM-practising regions. Many women worldwide suffer enforced sterilisation. Two-thirds of the world's blind are women and girls.
From plummeting body image to fights over abortion, from childbirth to the freedom to dress as they choose, feminists want to see women's bodies liberated from negative attitudes and control by others. No one should make us feel bad about them, keep us ignorant about them, or force us to do things with them that we don't want. And that includes feminists too.
So our first demand is for liberated bodies. Liberated from an oppressive, negative culture of body hatred; from fear, shame and ignorance. And liberated to adorn and express them, however we choose, and to decide what happens to them.
Beauty ideals and real women's bodies: the growing gap
Unilever beauty brand Dove commissioned two global surveys about women, beauty and body image in 2004 and 2005, launching its 'Campaign for Real Beauty' off the back of the first. The 2005 survey of 3,300 women aged 15–64 in ten countries reveals depressing evidence about women's body image and the 'appearance anxiety' created by beauty ideals. Only one in ten women reported being happy with the way they looked. Seven in ten avoid everyday activities including socializing, going to work or school, or going on dates, because they feel badly about their looks. Beauty ideals begin affecting women in early adolescence, with 13 being the average age at which young women reported becoming concerned about their appearance and the average age at which women started their beauty regimes – which suggests that the two are connected. When asked what influenced their self-image, the most common influences were family members (especially parents), the media and romantic partners. The UK results were some of the worst, especially for younger girls; British women came next to bottom (above Japan) in rates of body satisfaction and the likelihood of having dieted. Some 95 per cent of British women want to change something about their physical appearance, most commonly their body size. And the white bias of globalised beauty ideals was clear from some of the responses by women from Asia, South America and the Middle East. A desire to change one's hair, eye colour or shape, or skin colour (presumably to resemble more closely the Caucasian ideal) was mentioned more frequently by women living in these regions.
Self-esteem and body satisfaction are linked – if you're happy with your body, you're happy in yourself. But countless studies find that women's self-esteem is much lower than men's and that disordered eating and low body image frequently stem from women comparing their bodies to idealized images that appear in the media and are endorsed by peers and family members. A German study found that body dysmorphic disorder (a distressing condition whose sufferers are preoccupied with small or imagined defects in their appearance) is 'relatively common'. It was found to be experienced by 1.4 per cent of men and 1.9 per cent of women, and associated with a risk of suicide attempts seven times greater than that of non-sufferers.
Women's magazines regularly conduct surveys on women's body anxiety. In 2006 Grazia questioned 5,000 women in twenty British cities. They found that the average British woman worries about her size and shape every fifteen minutes, that only 2 per cent are happy with their body, and that 71 per cent believe that 'their whole life would improve greatly if they had a good body'. A 2007 reader survey commissioned by New Woman magazine revealed that 97 per cent thought size 12 was fat, and a further six out of ten women considered 'size zero' (a UK size 4) attractive. Before we're all tempted to feed the latest Cosmo to the paper shredder, it's worth bearing in mind that readers of women's magazines aren't representative of women in general, so these statistics can't be quoted as the truth about British women's self-image problem. (And, as we'll discuss, the exceedingly low self-image revealed by readers of women's magazines points to problems with the magazines themselves.)
It hasn't always been like this. Comparing changes in images of women in popular culture with changes in real women's bodies, the gap between the ideal and the real is growing. Images of female bodies are getting thinner and larger breasted, while real women are getting heavier, so achieving the ideal is increasingly difficult. In the 1970s, the average weight of models was 8 per cent less than the average woman, but by the late 1990s models weighed 23 per cent less. Since 1951, because of changes in lifestyle and food consumption, British women have put on an average of 7.5 lb (3 kg) in weight, 1.5 inches (4 cm) on their height and on their hips and 7.5 inches (16 cm) on their waists. Weighing all this up, the anthropologist Kate Fox estimates that the current desirable look is achievable for less than 5 per cent of the population. But we're still crippling ourselves trying.
Causes of eating disorders are numerous; it's young women who mainly fall victim to them (nine out of ten sufferers are female, and the most risky age group is 14 to 25), and it's undeniable that society's beauty ideals are a contributory factor. According to beat (formerly the Eating Disorders Association), over a million Britons are affected by eating disorders. In the USA, during their lifetime an estimated 0.5–3.7 per cent of females suffer from anorexia and 1.1–4.2 per cent from bulimia. Finland has a lifetime prevalence rate of 2.3 per cent for bulimia, less than a third of which is recognised by health-care professionals. Eating disorders – including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and compulsive overeating – are linked to low self-esteem. They often develop as ways of coping with difficult emotions or experiences. Campaigners express concern about the rise of pro-anorexia groups on social networking sites.
Beauty ideals are growing ever more extreme. So are the beauty practices that stem from the anxieties beauty ideals provoke. These include 'designer vaginas', popular with women who consider their genitals unattractive or want to be 'tightened up' after childbirth (one response, perhaps, to the pressure on mothers to 'get back in shape' soon after giving birth). In the USA, one of the latest operations is known as the 'pink-ectomy': women are reportedly paying good money to have their little toes amputated to fit better into the latest Jimmy Choos. Less extreme versions include toe tucks and collagen injections into the ball of the foot. Why? To make wearing high heels more comfortable. (A top female British lawyer admitted paying a US surgeon $23,000 for a complete 'foot lift').
The British spend more on make-up, cosmetic surgery and non-surgical treatments (like Botox and chemical peels) than anywhere else in Europe. Worldwide, the beauty industry is worth $160 billion per year. The cost to our wallets of appearance obsession should make us pause for thought. Can we really afford it, or are we being persuaded to sacrifice money – and time – to the beauty industry that would be better spent elsewhere? When you think that the typical woman survives on only 54 per cent of the average man's income and has managed to put away that same proportion less in investments and savings, you begin to question whether 'because I'm worth it' might be better applied to savings accounts than to make-up.
Men and boys are increasingly subject to pressures and self-esteem issues too; indeed, as Atkinson discovered from interviewing Canadian men, men are using procedures like breast reduction and hair transplantation for 're-establishing a sense of empowered masculine identity'. Yet women are hit hardest and go to greater extremes. Over nine out of ten cosmetic surgery procedures in the USA and UK are carried out on women. While only about 2 per cent of British women have had cosmetic surgery to enhance their looks, 23 per cent told the Dove survey researchers that they would consider it (27 per cent in the 15–17 age group); another survey put that figure at 44 per cent. Currently, the top choice is breast augmentation. But since fashions change and writers were lamenting the popularity of flat chests only twenty years ago, one wonders if the women having implants will ask their surgeons to take the silicone back in another decade's time.
This is body fascism. True respect for one's body will happen when stretch-marks, floppy stomachs, freckles, wrinkles and non-symmetrical breasts are accepted and embraced as part and parcel of human diversity.
Why should anyone care about this? If women choose to have breast implants, is it anyone else's business? Well, yes, because the cause of all this angst is a profound cultural devaluation of women's bodies, in fact of women themselves. Many cultures now assume that something is fundamentally wrong with the natural female body and that women are duty-bound to reshape ourselves. This needs to change.
The limitations of the beauty ideal
Being 'beautiful' or 'attractive' shouldn't have to be anyone's most important concern. Isn't it unfair that 'attractive' job applicants stand a better chance of being hired and receiving higher salaries? Is it right that, in jobs where women are told to wear heels and make-up, they are required to incur extra expense and discomfort, and put in extra time at the beginning of each day's work (with no extra pay!). And why should 'attractive' people be less likely to be found guilty of crimes and more often receive shorter sentences? Yet even this might not be so infuriating if the definition of beauty was a bit less restrictive and elitist. For women, being attractive is still linked with being able-bodied, young, white and 'feminine'. Anyone who doesn't meet these criteria, by choice or design, is not considered by mainstream society as beautiful or even, frankly, acceptable.
Criteria for beauty also reflect other inequalities in women's lives. Women's beauty is associated with youth, whilst men continue to be considered attractive as they age. Despite the fact that women live longer than men, and we have a rapidly ageing population, older women are practically invisible in the media (think of all the older male presenters paired with twenty-something women on television shows). Cosmetic companies encourage us to despise ageing. It's little wonder we don't want to get old when ageing is depicted as a kind of disease rather than a new stage of life with its good as well as bad points. For the beauty companies, ageing only brings dullness, unevenness, blotches and wrinkles. So their foundation promises 'younger looking skin', and this, it follows, 'helps you stay beautiful'.
Older women's invisibility links in with their general low status in society. As Marianne, 55, explains:
We do not have a proud tradition of elder respect or a good record of caring for our elders. Significant numbers of older women live on the poverty line and therefore their health is at serious risk, never mind their quality of life ... Older women suffer from double and triple jeopardy, which is both sexist and ageist, and in the case of ethnic minorities, racist.
To address this we should start by supporting [campaigns] to reform the pensions system through arguing that it should place women and carers at its heart. We should fight [ageist] stereotyping as we fought sexism and racism. We should raise the status of the caring professionals and train our social workers intensively. Ageing is a non negotiable aspect of all our lives – it is in everyone's interests to fight the prejudice.
Similarly, positive representations of women of colour and disabled women are rare. Women of colour zohra moosa explains
are generally brought into images in racialised ways: they are pictured in images to reinforce or remark upon their race in some way. For instance, they are often featured to sell or dress in 'tribal' motifs, 'exotic' scarves and 'ethnic garb'. Or they are incorporated to make a pronounced statement about race, such as in the July 2008 Italian issue of Vogue which featured only Black models.
Sometimes women of colour are even deliberately invoked at the same time as they are actively excluded and made absent, such as [October 2009's] French issue of Vogue ... rather than hire a Black model, white skinned Dutch model Lara Stone was blacked up in four pictures of a thirteen-page spread styled by the magazine's editor.
Cosmetic procedures women choose are often based, disturbingly, on white, Western ideals. An estimated half of all Korean schoolgirls are having procedures to Westernise their eyes. Meanwhile, Susie Orbach reveals,
Poorer girls and women in Chinese cities are creating sticky plasters to tape on their eyelids to duplicate the look of an open, western eye. The young woman may carry several homemade eyelid openers and go to the bathroom mirror hourly to replace her makeshift 'remedy' while her male friends may stuff socks into their shoes to create extra height. It is up to each person to fix their own body as though it were in need of a redesign.
It's all about conformity. Television makeover programmes offer to transform a 'frumpy' woman's appearance and bring her confidence and success. Yet, to achieve this, the woman has to put up with cruel mockery from the makeover gurus – whose documented insults include 'Your teeth are yellow, have you been eating grass?' and 'Oh my God ... she looks like a German lesbian!' (homophobic – check; xenophobic – check) – and 'correct' her body to achieve a more 'approved', 'sexy' shape. At the end of the process, known as 'the reveal', the woman is thinner, tanned, Botoxed and heavily made up. 'Excess' body hair or spots have gone, her breasts have been pushed up and out, her hair has been dyed and fashionably cut, and she is wearing the latest fashion 'must have'.
Excerpted from Reclaiming the F Word by Catherine Redfern, Kristin Aune. Copyright © 2013 Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Preface to the New Edition: Feminism Today
- 1. Liberated Bodies
- 2. Sexual Freedom and Choice
- 3. An End to Violence Against Women
- 4. Equality at Work and Home
- 5. Politics and Religion Transformed
- 6. Popular Culture Free from Sexism
- 7. Feminism Reclaimed
- Appendix: Survey Results