A few things have been bothering me recently, specifically relating to the issue of a woman’s body and how that relates to being a feminist. It seems that as a feminist I am constantly expected to eschew the societal norms regarding beauty and at least attempt to love my body as it is because all women are beautiful as they are, and aesthetic beauty is dictated by misogynists.
I do not love my body as it is, and I have no wish to do so until is up to the standards I wish it to be; namely a couple of stone lighter and a hell of a lot more toned. I like it, for sure —but I don’t love every part of it by any means. But, this attitude sometimes makes me feel guilty – I am healthy and therefore should just be happy and proud of what I’ve got. Right? Not being satisfied with it, thus desiring conventional beauty, is after all an essential contradiction of feminism. Or is it?
Just why is it such a contradiction to desire aesthetic beauty and be a staunch feminist?
These thoughts began to solidify in my mind a few weeks ago; I was complaining to a good friend that I wanted to lose some weight, or discussing how I wouldn’t be wearing a bikini at the spa trip we had planned, or something along those lines. She replied half-jokingly that as a feminist I shouldn’t really be worrying about those things – shouldn’t I be radiating an attitude of nonchalant body confidence instead? (That was the gist of her reply anyway.) This discussion has since made me visibly notice the amount of emphasis there is on feminists being ‘body-loving’ – I see it on blogs and websites and in adverts. There seems to be a strong correlation between being a feminist and being able to disregard modern standards of beauty, as dictated to us by the media and society.
With this in mind, I read a column this week by Fiona Sturges; she was discussing her childhood schooling by nuns in a comment article from the Independent on Sunday, when she mentioned that the nuns expected ‘young ladies to be seen and not heard.’ I looked this up because though I have heard it used in that context I always thought the true saying was:
Children should be seen and not heard
But, the proverb apparently stems from one written in a collection recorded in the fifteenth century (by an Augustinian clergyman):
A mayde (maid/young woman) schuld (should) be seen, but not herd (heard).
Then due to language confusions it became better known as ‘children’ because ‘girl’ actually meant ‘child’ at one point in history — it wasn’t gender specific. (You can see how the saying may have been altered over time.) In any case, that such a belief ever existed angers me instantly because it sums up an age-old attitude towards women, one that has irrevocably led to the inequality that has stuck to society for thousands of years like grease in the bottom of an old frying pan: men do the talking and the thinking, women are simply there to be attracted to, to have sex with, and then to reproduce.
It leads me to think that as a modern feminist one simply wishes for the opposite — to be heard yet not be seen — because the original is so unjust. And this must be why there is a self-imposed expectation for feminists to eschew beauty: they are instinctively trying to oppose what has been expected of them for hundreds of years and change the status quo so that voices ring loud and clear whilst beautifully feminine features lay hidden, as to not prove a distraction.
The thing is though, I have always maintained that I like my female qualities – I like wearing make up and whining about wanting to look like Jessica Alba and shaving my legs every other day. Any feminist will tell you that is a massive myth that all feminists refuse to shave. And most feminists will tell you that they disagree with the veiling of women, in accordance with some religions, because female beauty should not be a distraction — we should not have to hide it.
So why then, do I have to love my body as it is? Why isn’t it okay for me to consciously try and make it conventionally beautiful as I see fit? Why should I have to stand tall and tell myself and the world that I love my love handles? Maybe it is my personal prerogative, but I want to have it all: I want to be seen and heard. I want to retain the right to my feminine interest in beauty and appearance (and admittedly vanity), and yet still be heard and recognised alongside men as their intellectual equal if I am so. Are we not just disagreeing with the wonders of Western society, as conservative religious figures do quite openly, if we do not retain this want?
Furthermore… I want women to have access to typically male dominant arenas if they want to — such as team sport (women’s rugby and football on BBC1) and politics (50% of the cabinet should be female) and Formula one (a woman driving for a top team like Red Bull is surely imminent).
Is this a spoilt attitude to have? Is it too much to ask for?
I genuinely don’t think so — though feel free to disagree with me here guys. I mean, I don’t mind men having access to the ‘female’ parts of life. Childcare, cleaning, cooking, the beauty industry: they can have it all. It’s not like I’m fencing it off. And, to that order, what man doesn’t feel pressured to be ripped and toned, or to look suave like George Clooney, or to maybe buy moisturiser to stop the onset of wrinkles? They are quite welcome to keep their own vain insecurities – I am not suggesting taking them away.
I just want a level playing field where I and other women have access to it all — to everything. Including the right to not love our bodies and to covet shallow vanities and yet still be considered champions of female rights because women do not have to choose between ‘seen’ and ‘heard’. It isn’t, and never should be, one or the other. Like men — we can have it all.