My little girl is on the front cover of a glossy magazine this week. That fourteen word sentence could easily lead you to make all kinds of assumptions about me. So, before your thoughts lead you off in this or that somewhat negative direction, I’ll just stop you to say 1) she’s four, 2) in the photograph she wearing a lovely piece of outdoor clothing called a Smocka, made by my friend Marilu’s company (http://www.ockyolly.com/), and wading through a puddle in her wellies in the early morning sunshine, and 3) the magazine is called Devon Life. Walking in to my local Sainsbury’s, I laughed as I was confronted with three rows of the magazine on its own stand by the door. The assistants may have thought me a bit odd when I got out my phone to take a picture of it. I put a couple of copies in the bottom of my trolley, and proceeded to do my shopping. Loading up the belt, I mentioned in passing to the young woman on the till that she was my little girl, hence the multiple copies. She joked that perhaps it was the start of a career; my reflex was to say that I wasn’t sure I’d want her to go into modelling. And then, she told me how she’d been spotted at 17 and had spent a year in London doing just that. She’d left after twelve months because she ended up lonely and uncertain about where she was headed. As I finished packing up my food, I sympathised with how she must have felt. She’d confirmed my suspicions about an industry that is all about How People Look. Actually, in the case of women, let’s make that How People Look With Not Much On.
Earlier this week, a tweet from Caitlin Moran directed me to an article written by Zoe Williams in The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/24/children-enemy-sexism-not-sexualisation Essentially Zoe’s argument was that in reality, the worry we all have that, in modern British society, girl’s lives are dangerously over-sexualised, may not be as true as we all think it is. Zoe did acknowledge that our girls are exposed to increasing amounts of inappropriate images. But, using evidence from an LSE study, she also shared her view that our fears about what was happening at the level of text, facebook and in the classroom, were not being played out in reality. Zoe reassured me that teenage girls were not all rushing around hitching up their skirts, or thinking the best way to get their own flat was to get pregnant, or sticking their fingers down their throats in the school loos.
As I finished reading my initial response was ‘Phew’. Then, I immediately started wondering if I really agreed with her, despite the respectable evidence-base of her article. In the same week as Zoe wrote her piece, Steve Biddulph, a big name in writing on parenting, has published his latest edition of ‘Raising Girls’. I haven’t read it yet, but reviews suggest that he is, in effect, making a call-to-arms, alarmed at the deteriorating mental health of our young women as the rampant over-commercialisation and objectification of women in Western society takes its toll. He wants us to act to protect our daughters, to give them a chance of getting to adulthood with an intact and balanced sense of self. For me, Steve’s concern rings more true than Zoe’s belief that we may be overstating things. His arguments are backed up by Oliver James in the marvellous, brilliant life-changing Affluenza. In it he demonstrates (backed up with a lot of research) that the more like the USA a given society is, the more likely that sections of that society, and its young people in particular, are likely to be suffering with depression, mental illness and other related issues. And thanks to our Special Relationship, there ain’t no nation more like the US of A than us.
Now, I’m just an ordinary, reasonably well-educated woman whose teenage years coincided with the destructive individualism and over-the-top ‘selling out’ of the Thatcher years. As the marvellous and prophetic comedian Bill Hicks wryly observed, sex sells stuff, so the hard sell of pretty much everything in the UK today will precipitate the increasing objectification of the female form. I can feel things have changed, worsened, since that moment. A piece by Amelia Hill in The Observer back in February 2010 summed up my thoughts perfectly;
“The worst that young women of the previous [pre-Thatcher] generation had to contend with was a stolid, lingering patriarchy, a sniggering, Benny Hill-style of humour that was obviously already on its last legs, and Page 3 girls; a lewdness that today seems more quaint than offensive. The sexual politics that girls today find themselves confronting couldn’t be more different…”(http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/feb/21/after-feminism-girls-supposed)
There’s no doubting that the whole Jimmy Saville debacle may well have revised our view of that Benny Hill era. But, despite everything that women have achieved in the last 40 years or so, how we look, our size, our attractiveness (defined narrowly, of course), our sexual appeal, is still playing far too large a role in determining the impact we have on our peers, our society. An advert this week for Take A Break magazine has Mel Sykes enjoying a line-dancing class with a group of women. Sitting down for a natter, they find it hard to understand why Bloke A would leave Fat Bird B for Even Fatter Bird C. Never mind that C might be as witty as Victoria Coren and Sue Perkins combined. Or might be chief research scientist for GlaxoSmithKline, or be next in line to Chair the BBC. Never mind even, that she might just be the right person for him. She was fat, and that is what we are supposed to notice about her. Her body image doesn’t match the waxed, bronzed norm, and so eyebrows are raised at the idea that someone might find her attractive.
I can go on. Mary Beard, undoubtedly one of the smartest women this nation could boast of, got a twitter-troll-tirade of abuse for her physical appearance, after she was a guest on BBC Question Time (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jan/26/mary-beard-question-time-internet-trolls?CMP=twt_fd). Never mind that she may have had something interesting to say on education, poverty, and changes to the benefit system. Or take Cherie Blair, whose personal choices were sometimes, I’ll grant you, questionable, but in her professional life did her single-handed best to challenge her own husband’s government in the European Court to address the shortcomings of our maternity pay and benefits system. In the main though, our media focused on the size of her mouth and how bad (they thought) she looked in her pyjamas. Luckily for us, Mary Beard and Cherie Blair, and others like them, continue to do their good work despite what the glossies and the red tops and crazy-on-the-edge-bigoted-fringe of social media country have to say about them. But, 35 years after Susie Orbach wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue, body image, and its close cousin, sexual attractiveness, seem more central a preoccupation for the media than it has ever been.
Put another way, how a woman looks is still playing too great a part in determining her access to influence. Last summer this nation enjoyed an extraordinary moment, witnessing our female sporting heroes achieve remarkable feats. Jessica Ennis was willed over the line of the 800 metres by half the nation screaming on that marvellous Saturday night, or so it seemed. As Lord Coe hung her medal around her neck, what I wanted our young women to think was, ‘Hey, an ordinary woman from an ordinary town did a great thing. She worked hard, she believed in herself.’ But within a few weeks, the magazine articles about Jess weren’t focusing on her startling achievements; no, most of the journalists interviewing her wanted to know about the details of her impending wedding, what her dress would be like, who was making the cake, ya-da-da-da-da. The words ‘I’ and ‘despair’ come to mind. Surely Jess had more fundamentally important things to tell us – if only the journalists would ask the right questions…
I struggle to blend all this disparate societal feedback into a coherent view. If anything, it was the headache brought on by this mishmash of conflicting information that urged me on to writing this post in the first place, to see if I could make sense of it all. And I keep coming back to what I read in 2010. Amelia Hill’s piece had been prompted by a report on a longitudinal study of young women’s mental health and risky behaviour carried out in Scotland between 1987 and 2006. It made for depressing reading, underpinning the alarm Steve Biddulph feels good and proper. There were alarming increases in the rates of anxiety, depression, panic attacks, disorders and hospitalisation for stress-related problems over the course of the 19-year study. These young women were, as the author of the research expressed it, the ‘canaries’ of our generation, “their personal tales a powerful indication of the social influences that are deeply damaging” to us all.
There are a lot of things I worry about when I think about my daughter becoming a woman via the obstacle course of adolescence. But of all of them, at the top of the list is ‘How are we going to have her realise, that whether or not her physical appearance matches up to some strongly defined cultural norms, she is of value, that her existence has meaning?’ There is still a 30% pay gap, there are alcopops and rohipnol and cyber-bullying, and I care about all these things a great deal. But for me, my need to ensure that I raise a young woman who feels good about herself, physically and psychologically, is huge, near-overwhelming. I don’t want her to feel that society will appreciate her skin deep and no further; I want her generation to break through that particular glass ceiling.