Why demonising Kate Moss is hypocritical

Monday, 23 November 2009

I'm pretty sure this is being said here, there and everywhere so apologies for being late to the party but I was busy all weekend at Reclaim The Night and travelling to and from London. Here is a bonus picture of me looking a bit damp and wearing my fabulous marching hat. Anyway. Kate Moss. I missed the initial uproar over her "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" comment, only managing to catch up with it last night. People have been (quite rightly) pointing out that actually, plenty of things taste as good as skinny feels, at the same time as lambasting Kate for her 'irresponsible' comments and accusing her of fuelling the eating disorders of young women. So far, so predictable.

But all these outraged people, intent on blaming Kate for the misfortune of every eating disorder sufferer the world over, have generally failed to point out one thing. While she did make an ill-advised comment which just happens to be the mantra of many eating-disordered people, it's a comment that isn't so very different to the message pushed on us every day by television shows, magazines, books and plenty of other celebrities. They may not use those exact words, but everyone knows it's what they mean.

When I worked with women's magazines, one thing I used to notice was the very narrow weight range that was 'acceptable' for a celebrity. I remember an interview in which a member of Girls Aloud bemoaned how 'fat' she felt when she weighed her heaviest - 112 pounds. I remember a soap star telling a journalist that she weighed 125 pounds, but hurriedly 'justifying' such a weight by adding that much of that was muscle and was down to all the time she was spending at the gym. Admitting you weigh 125 pounds without justification is only acceptable if you're a reasonably tall celebrity, known for your 'curves'. And by the way, 'curves' means 'larger than average breasts'.

That was three years ago, but of course nothing's changed today. Women's magazines fixate on dieting to the point that the 'advice' they give about avoiding snacking and 'naughty' foods isn't so different to the tips you'd find on a pro-eating disorders website. In this month's Elle magazine, Kate Hudson is quoted as saying:
"I'm pretty solid, actually. I'm not, like, 110 pounds. But I'm probably heading towards that."
Maybe we should be grateful for small mercies - at least the interviewer went on to point out what a particularly 'Hollywood' definition of 'solid' that is.

Oh, and I bought a muffin from the canteen at work recently. The woman serving me tutted and said "Naughty naughty!" as I paid for it. This isn't the first time I've been admonished for buying something sweet from the canteen. Oh no. On purchase of a packet of Minstrels last year, the woman who took my money told me they would make me fat. Yes - one packet of Minstrels: a lifetime on the hips. Try as you might, you can't escape the implication that enjoying what you want, when you want is very bad indeed. Or at least something to berate yourself for, promising to work extra hard at the gym later because you ate some chips for lunch.

Kate Moss may have said it, but plenty of other people, publications and companies imply it with everything they do. Let's not demonise one model and ignore the rest. Doubtless, Kate is a role model for many young women, but young women take inspiration from plenty of other sources. For the media to display outrage is just hypocritical, not least because for them it's yet another opportunity to indulge in a favourite past-time - cricising a famous woman and the way she looks.

Part Two of On Marriage to follow this week, hopefully.

On Marriage (Part One)

Saturday, 14 November 2009

This week I remembered that I once said I'd blog about my marriage and what it means to me from a Christian, feminist perspective. This year, Jessica Valenti tied the knot. Several newspapers and websites featured the story; from her engagement to the planning to the day itself, people were fascinated to see how a 'feminist wedding' was going to pan out. Many were eager to congratulate her and wish her all the best, but others felt her decision was a betrayal of her feminist ideals. Would she take her partner's surname? Would she wear a 'traditional' dress? What was she going to do about the fact that same-sex couples are denied the right to marry? In blog posts and newspapers, people debated whether a feminist marriage is even possible.

I married Luke on May 19th, 2007. This shocks people. Sometimes it's because I'm a feminist who's married, but usually because we were both 22 at the time. I've lost count of the number of people who have asked me, in complete shock, why I could possibly want to get married so young. They ask why I wanted to 'settle down' before having 'lived a bit', as if getting married means the end of having a life. Or how, at just 22, I could commit to one person - never to date anyone else again. For some, their 'shock' barely masks their snobbery - nice, middle-class professionals don't marry until they're at least 30. No really. Look out for the slight sneer. This happens a lot. Yes - baking, all things Cath Kidston and imploring each other to 'make do and mend' may be en vogue but going retro by marrying before your late 20s isn't the done thing.

The only place my married status isn't a shock to people is at church. Christians love marrying young if they can. In some churches, it's very much the norm. When we were at university one of my pet peeves was the culture of 'marrying off' which existed in some Christian unions and churches. The pressure to get hitched (or at least be engaged by) the same year as your graduation in some quarters was ridiculous. It was almost as if we'd gone back to the days of being firmly 'on the shelf' at the ripe old age of 23. It used have everyone over the age of 24 sick with worry that there was no-one out there for them and wondering if it meant God wanted them to be single...FOREVER. That Stuff Christian Culture Likes post about hoping the rapture doesn't happen until after your wedding night? It happens. While I was totally against this sort of pressure and still am, I was also very much in a relationship.

Luke and I went on our 'first date' in November 2001. By late 2004, having survived the first year of university intact (just), we were starting to talk about 'the future'. Yes, we were one of those couples who discussed it all first. I knew he was going to propose, he knew I was going to say 'yes'. Luke had decided he was going to do the whole thing 'officially', though. So I was proposed to - in the manky kitchen of his student house in February 2005, in case you're interested. The next day, we told our parents. After discussion with them we agreed that we were going to get married in 2007, giving us time to have finished studying and (hopefully) have been working for a while. My mum in particular was pretty concerned about any effect getting married might have on my working life; she worried that 'settling down' could negatively impact my career choices and independence which of course is true and something I have had to deal with over the past couple of years.

So I'd got a ring on my finger. Off goes the starting pistol in the Feminist Marriage Olympics, right? I could definitely lose points for an engagement ring. In our favour, Luke didn't ask for my dad's 'permission' first. Jokes aside, I think it's so easy to get like this, analysing each choice couples make for its links in patriarchal tradition and while this isn't wrong at all, it can mean focusing on small things at the expense of the bigger picture. Something which invariably came out of online discussions on weddings earlier this year was a rejection of 'traditional' weddings, weddings 'the way they've always been done'. I'm in agreement with this one. There can be so much pressure from family, friends and companies who just want you to buy their stuff to have the expensive dresses, the huge reception and the 'perfect' cake. I can't stand the hype around weddings perpetuated by women's magazines, wedding shows and even the wedding-themed television channels which now exist. I didn't want to spend several months beforehand having skin treatments or fork out a small fortune on personalised favours, all in pursuit of 'being like a princess for the day'. For several years now the beauty industry has been using weddings as an opportunity to make us spend money on yet more things we don't need. Skin peels, anti-cellulite treatments, 'countour wraps', you name it and somewhere, a company will be telling brides-to-be that they need it to feel and look their best on the big day. Not going to lie, after nagging on my mum's part I did make futile efforts to scrub and moisturise away the keratosis pilaris which covers my upper arms through the winter. Did it work? Not really - much like all those anti-cellulite, anti-ageing products.

For us, our wedding day was about being united and committing to one another for the rest of our lives, not putting on some sort of show for the benefit of our families and friends. All too easily these days weddings start to revolve around what the guests would want or how best to please them when it's about the couple and the vows they're making to each other. Our Christian faith meant we wanted a church wedding and the religious aspect of the marriage was, and continues to be important for us as a couple (more on this in Part Two). I wanted the focus of the wedding to be on the service and we spent a lot of time choosing which songs and readings to use, picking ones which were of personal significance to us. A dear friend of Luke's family provided the music, along with two violinists I knew from my time playing in local youth orchestras.

The 'major' issues I'm sure you all want to know about:

- Yes, I changed my surname to Luke's. I wanted to take his name in some way and was all ready to hyphenate, until I actually thought about it and realised how stupid the two names sound when put together. No really, they do. Whenever I tell people what my name would have been, they think it's hilarious. When I got engaged, one of my flatmates told me it sounded like 'slang for an unspeakable sexual practice'. I decided it would be better to just take his name and avoid the sniggers every time I introduced myself. Besides, I'd had my dad's surname up until then so either way I was going to end up with a man's name. I know that if I'd married a man with a less...tricky...surname, I would be using both names.

- I did not promise to 'obey' Luke as part of my vows. This was something I'd planned to talk to the vicar about because I had raised the issue with Luke and he agreed with me that it wasn't right for us. However, when we got the order of service booklet we discovered that the church did not use the 'obey' version of the vows anyway. The Church of England started to offer alternative wording in 2006, releasing a report recognising that 'obey' is a problematic word which could help to reinforce a domination/submission aspect to marriages and could also be used by perpetrators to justify domestic violence. There's some pretty interesting information on the report here.

- I didn't wear a white dress. A couple of people I know were actually slightly miffed at this and couldn't see why I didn't want to. Aside from the virginity-obsessing aspect of it all (I think I feel the same about it as I do about purity rings, purity balls and mentioning a couple's virginity as part of the marriage service), I never actually wear white. I can't imagine myself in a white outfit and wasn't going to change that for my wedding day. I did, however, wear a 'traditional' wedding dress. The colour was champagne. Yes, there is a difference between 'champagne' and 'white'.

It was a wonderful day. I'd tried not to get stressed about it and thankfully didn't until a couple of days before, when I started to wonder if I'd drop Luke's ring, or mess up the vows, or trip over my dress and end up in hospital. To be honest it's all over so quickly that anxiety for months beforehand just isn't worth it. Weddings are easy to deal with when you think about what comes afterwards.

Part Two will deal with married life; how it fits with my faith and feminism and decisions we've made on gender roles.

Fun Feminist Tuesday

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

I know I posted earlier this afternoon, but a friend just alerted me to something which I can't help but talk about.

If you're in any doubt that a woman cannot be 'feminist' and 'feminine', look no further. You need the patronising wisdom of Karen Salmansohn, who is so uncomfortable with the word 'feminist' that she thinks we should invent a new word to show that "Being a strong, powerful woman doesn't mean you have to be tough, overworked and unattractive." She opens her article, Are You A Feminist or a Feminine-ist? with a truly unbelievable anecdote:

My friend David got mugged at a bank machine by a beautiful, leggy, sexy woman.

"Actually, it might have been a transvestite," David corrected himself.

"It's okay if you were mugged by a woman," I told him, smiling.

Now embarrassed, David said, "The more I think about it, the more I'm sure he was a transvestite."

I laughed but was also intrigued by why David would be so embarrassed to be mugged by a beautiful, leggy, sexy woman, but not a man.
Salmansohn claims she finds the negative connotations associated with the word 'feminist' "shameful and highly unhelpful". Which is fair enough. So do I. Yet her solution to the problem?
"I'd like to put forth that starting today, the word 'feminism' be updated to become the new word 'feminine-ism.'"
In case you didn't feel queasy enough by this new addition to the funfeminist lexicon, have some more choice quotes:
"Whenever I do take the time to tap into "feminine-ism"—this energy of simply being by indulging in a meditative and self-nurturing manicure, a facial or a hot bubble bath—that's when I feel my most powerful."

"I am here to tell you that feeling sexy is what helps me to be my most powerful and successful self, and being powerful and successful also helps me feel damn sexy!"

"With the word "feminism," it might have been embarrassing for a man to say he was a supporter because it might sound like he was admitting to supporting of a group of controlling, bitchy women. But with new pro-sexiness, pro-sweetness, pro-balance words like "feminine-ist" and "feminine-ism," what's not for a man to love?"
And in case you weren't quite taken aback by the 'transvestite' anecdote, have some musings on Western vs Eastern 'femininity':
"It seems that America has been fighting against the perception of being feminine for a while now...If you compare America to countries in the East, you'll see what I mean. If America were to be personified, it would definitely be a real guy's guy—running around, talking loudly, smacking you on the back in greeting, occasionally belching—a lovable, rambunctious guy's guy.

Now, imagine a country like India personified. It would embrace more feminine qualities like stillness, meditativeness and spirituality."
So what are you waiting for girls? Go forth, believe in equality, but don't forget to make sure you're still sexy and fun! Thankfully everyone commenting on the piece seems pretty horrified.

Further reading -
Terra's Tales
Heartless Doll

Quentin Letts: officially a nasty little man

Quentin Letts's misogyny knows no bounds. Today, one of my favourite Daily Mail idiots completely outdoes himself in a piece entitled The First Ladette: How Germaine Greer's legacy is an entire generation of loose-knickered lady louts.

Before I start I think it's worth pointing out that Letts doesn't just confine his hate to women. In fact, i think he hates almost everything and in this piece alone he manages to mention (to name a few) people who sleep in late, the younger members of the Royal Family and men who shave their heads. Particularly concerned by this last one, he wails:

"...would you trust a dentist who had chosen to go bald? Would you want your children treated by a doctor who had shaved his head?"

I can't say it's something I've thought about. After all, they don't tend to my hair.

But coming back to the main focus of the story - us wimmin and our hard-drinking, knicker-flashing, twinset-binning ways. Yes, he actually mentions twinsets and the fact that sadly, you don't see women wearing them these days. Instead of wearing pearls and blushing, we're behaving, as Letts tells us in no uncertain terms, like "slappers". In his world, women who don't drink are mocked and labelled "frigid". I don't know who he hangs out with, but I know a fair few women who don't drink for a variety of reasons. Their friends and acquaintances are totally fine with it. Even when I was at university and someone I knew derided a friend for not drinking, everyone took a pretty dim view of this.

If Letts thinks he writes out of concern for the 'fairer sex' and reverence for those 'ladies' of a lost era, his language smacks of pure contempt for women. He reviles their "fat faces", their "flab-mottled bellies" and "goose-pimpled thighs". He's clearly one of those men who claims to care for and respect women, yet actually shows nothing but disgust for all but those who fit his definition of perfect womanhood - and that includes the way they look. I see this so often among men who claim to care. They put the image of woman as the traditionally feminine, frock-wearing, quiet, married homemaker on a pedestal, claiming that they adore women yet put down those of us who don't fit the mold.

Who's to blame for all this? Germaine Greer, of course. Letts tuts at her for encouraging women to assert sexual power and objectifying the opposite sex (clearly that's something only men should be able to do). She's the godmother of all who drink too much, flash their flesh, make too much noise and sleep with whoever they want. A few weeks ago I wrote about a man linking women's struggle for equality with an increase in violence and rape. Letts again makes the link between misogyny and 'women's lib', claiming that:

"The very notion of being a gent became redundant if men and women were the same"
Nice one Quentin. So if we go back to an age before equality, men will magically stop being sexist? He can't resist the opportunity to shoehorn in a nod to 'PC gone mad' either, as only a Daily Mail journalist could do:
"When the RMS Titanic sank in 1912, a large proportion of the female passengers survived, but 80 per cent of the men on board went down with the ship, doomed by chivalry. They had observed the code of 'women and children first' to the lifeboats.

Would that happen today? After the onslaughts of sexual equality, it seems unlikely. Anyone using such a term on a modern-day Titanic would probably find himself rapped on the shoulder by the ship's diversity champion and told he had uttered a sexist comment which would be investigated by the relevant authorities, just as soon as the lifeboats reached land."
Bizarrely he attempts to address the privilege of middle-class feminists by pointing out the hurdles faced by working-class women when it comes to jobs and motherhood. But never fear, it's peppered with offensive statements and ends with a tirade about discrimination against married couples to the benefit of all those terrible young single mothers. Like much of the right, Letts yearns for a return to that imaginary pre-1960s paradise where everyone was happily married, all children grew up in stable, loving homes, men respected women and women never strayed far from the kitchen. Like much of the right it's clear he chooses to ignore the darker side of that 'paradise', mistaking the fact that more women were married or the fact they had fewer abortions for happiness and stability. He mentions Germaine Greer's infidelity during her marriage as if cheating is somehow a newfangled, post-1960s invention of the 'women's lib' set. He sees misogyny as a direct result of women no longer knowing their place and (shockingly) wanting to be treated on equal terms.

The answer to today's societal problems is not a return to the values of the 1950s. The blame for today's societal problems does not lie with the women who have struggled for a better deal for their sisters. Letts tries to make out he cares about the state of our 'broken' country, but this article was nothing more than another chance for the Mail to blame women for society's ills. Going to work? Selfish, makes us bad mothers. Not getting married? Responsible for the breakdown of society. Equal rights legislation? That's just taking things too far! Getting raped? We shouldn't be drinking/wearing short skirts/walking anywhere without a chaperone. What exactly CAN we do right?

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