The sun has come out in England. It’s like feeling nostalgia on your skin. I love it, like everyone else. I’m at work, it’s my lunchbreak, I’m walking across a campus in my sunglasses to eat my sandwiches in the sun, and I see a girl lying in a bikini. Despite the heat, I freeze.
I don’t know exactly why that happened, but I’ve been thinking about it. It’s a typical university summer afternoon scene: there are boys whipping frisbees to each other, students sitting cross legged with folders on their knees, a group playing music from a phone. We are also right next to a main road and a hospital. I didn’t have girls in bikinis in this summer afternoon schema – I expect them at beaches and in magazines, not here.
So of course my first thought is: Ping! Internalized misogyny. Insecurity. She’s allowed to lie in a bikini. There’s nothing obscene about the female body.
But I’ve been getting this irking nagging feeling, that I’m convincing myself of something for someone else’s gain. It’s an eerily similar feeling to when I used to try and convince myself that I should stop letting porn make me feel insecure and be unaffected by its widespread use.
Growing up a girl, navigating the slut-prude dichotomy is a very real and very exhausting thing. It’s too much to ask a young girl to not care about her appearance and not try to be at least a little bit sexually appealing. We see ugly people get grimaces and pretty people get smiles. It’s normal to want the smiles, especially when you’re young. Attention from the male sex is self-esteem gold dust, shimmers bright but flutters away into invisibility very quickly. You need another blast, again and again, to assure yourself that you’re okay, you’re pretty, you’re worth walking down the street. But then – you’re a slut, you’re desperate, you’re not classy. Why are girls like you stupid enough to wear heels you can’t walk in? An embarrassment. Two choices and neither one was right. Every day we wrestle with two entirely different personalities, like keeping an angry snake on each arm away from each other.
Liberal feminism has offered absolutely no enlightening nuance on the dilemma and absolutely no substantial relief for young women. As awareness of the sexism inherent in this situation started steadily, shakily, to rise, liberal feminism shouted across the debate ‘WOO GIRL NO, TAKE IT ALL OFF, IT’S TOTALLY FINE! IT’S EMPOOOOWERIIIIIING!’. There’s that quick blow of gold dust – the decision is made for me, today I can drop the concern of looking “slutty” and step off the tightrope, thank goodness. And tomorrow. And the day after that. A quick gold dust flash each morning to keep me hooked. The debate has been snapped and I’ve been given the right half. But here’s the crux of the problem: we cannot hold both that revealing outfits and women’s fashion are empowering, and also that femininity is an invention designed to be harmful and constricting of women. It doesn’t add up.
The truth of the matter which we must not lose sight of is that the majority of beauty and fashion items designed for women are uncomfortable, inconvenient, expensive, and often constricting to the point of dangerous. Women have to get up earlier to put make-up on, spend more money on beauty products, miss out on normal delicious foods, step tentatively around tight fabric and heels and always watch ourselves through others’ eyes (male fantasies, male fantasies…). Things have been made this way and we should be suspicious when things are made to be such that we should see these things as a pleasure, as respectful ‘self-love’, rather than the arduous fucking tasks they are. The clumsy meddling liberal feminism has done here has covered up two things: One, in emphasising the opposing option as the only other option and as nothing more than misogynistic traditional pearl-clutching prudishness, it has cut off from us the thought-avenue in the middle, that perhaps we should examine why we think the way we think and want what we want, given that we live in a patriarchy, the effects of which which will run deep. In a world which rewards only women’s beauty with true regard (and a pithy form of it at that) rather than whatever that women is doing or standing for, emboldening even more so the ‘liberating nature’ of beauty regimes is not in the least bit empowering. We are distracted completely from taking a good stern look at why make-up and beauty can come to mean a lot to some of us. Secondly, it has hidden with slight of hand how incredibly one sided this activism is. Women are essentially just being told to ‘learn to do it right’ if they don’t enjoy it and men are not being required to change a thing. While women are told that exposing their bodies is an act of ‘self-love’, men are being exposed to more pornographic images of women than ever, encouraging violence and objectification of female bodies. Beauty standards have not dropped an inch – women may be able to have their stomachs out but the moment there’s any actual belly at all, or a nipple comes out, or a pube, or a dot of blood, the true power of the patriarchy – pretending to look the other way but with one sly eye on you – is back with full force, slamming shame and resentment onto women. (The moment there’s a baby on the end of your tit, the debate raises up like a serpent – is the female form portrayed in a functioning way appropriate for the public? Well, the jury is still out on that one.) We’re just being asked to dance more, closer to the edge. Women are being told to just deal with it, by themselves, within themselves. Get confident, get secure, get them out. In a final sparkle of passive activism, speaking out about this has become branded as ‘body shaming’ and ‘slut shaming’, because it turns out that the answer to the dilemma, if we’re going to be troublesome enough to bring it up, is to allow each other to be sluts, rather than think too hard about rejecting the concept of sluttishness itself as coherent or morally okay at all. Seems convenient.
Like with most dilemmas, the answer isn’t one horn or the other. By grasping one horn obsessively, we have overlooked a nuanced position in the middle: the way we present our bodies as women, is not necessarily going to be empowering in virtue of the fact it was a ‘choice’ a woman made, but there is no way of presenting a female body which can possibly rightly be used against that woman, to bash her, shame her, or speak for the value of her being. That’s all us radical feminists are trying to say – we’re just arguing against the conviction that women’s bodies displayed in a way that’s in line with patriarchal portrayals of beauty is empowering. We are not saying it’s wholly bad, wrong or shameful. We’re being radical – looking at the root of where these beliefs and wants come from.
They come from dark places, and that’s not our fault. It’s not our fault that images of women’s bodies make men’s brains react the same way as when they look at tools. And that is why I am made uncomfortable. Men being disgusting makes me uncomfortable, and letting them get away with it by just pretending it’s not happening makes me uncomfortable, and then calling it feminism is the final straw. Put me on a female-only nude beach and I’ll have a day to treasure (see how even in a radical feminist blog post it brings a mental smirk? Women’s bodies can only be knocking around for ONE thing and enjoyed in ONE way!). What makes me uncomfortable is the men and the ideology-blinders. Feminism must be radical, it must identify the root of the problem, it must look past all the ideology, all the wishful thinking, at what is actually happening and what is causing it. What I see is strikingly young women, walking around half naked, pristine, pruned, like models, and the men, plain and boring, consuming girls bodies as if they’re food in the world which is their public buffet. With the half-baked messages of liberal feminism mixed in, it feels like watching a mass delusion play out that I feel prised into being a part of.
Girls, we cannot live on gold dust. It will never leave us with any deep or enduring satisfaction. The idea that anything here is empowering or will make the suffering that young women fight through disappear, is the work of snakeoil salesmen. Girls can do whatever they want with their bodies, but they can’t call it whatever they want afterwards. It’s not girls’ fault and it’s not all on the girls to sort out – simply covering up will not change these men’s mindsets. But neither will baring all, and calling something that is only short term relief rather than something that will make any kind of difference, ‘feminism’, is not okay. The men are smirking, and that’s the massive invisible elephant strolling across that campus. I’m hit with what looks like a dystopia to me and it makes me uncomfortable.