The bottom line (pun fully intended) is that we each own our own bodies, but the message that drones on is that our bodies are somehow public property, whether screamingly obvious like the “hot or not” culture, where bodies are scrutinized, rated, broken down into composite parts, or more subtly; “How to dress to flatter your age” The mentality that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to package your particular meat coated skeleton, dependent on its shape or age and that you don’t necessarily have the right to choose that for yourself.
I’m a 37 year old British woman born and raised in Wales by a mum who remained firmly anchored to a rock of submissiveness as the waves of feminism and sexual revolution surged intimidatingly past, and by a common garden sexist Dad, her indoors cooks, cleans, raises the kids, cor look at the tits on her, except he would never have voiced that, silenced by the hand of shame it was his not very well hidden porn collection that spoke volumes.
I was utterly oblivious (of course) to the sea of sexism and confusion that I swan in. As my sister and I clumsily stumbled into puberty, my mother told us to cover up at all costs as men were powerless to resist the sexual charms of women. And yet Bond girls seemed powerless to resist the advances of 007, a man with a license to sexually coerce. My gran told me I looked like a tart when I first put some makeup on aged 12 and yet my father loved pornography. Images of semi-clad women decorated newspaper shelves, clearly there to entice purchase, as I worked out how many sweets I could get for 50p in my local newsagents. I felt that my body was a dangerous weapon, a loaded gun that no one was showing me how to use without doing an injury to someone, and that someone was most likely to be me.
So back to today, 2016, the age of social media, a time where a huge seething melting pot of ideas, beliefs, artistic endeavours, selfies, cat videos, banality, desperate attention seeking and hatred have been given a platform. The masses have been handed what could be described as both a gilded megaphone and a poisoned chalice. For me, and no doubt for many, it’s been a ticket to ride aboard a new train of feminism that I didn’t even know I needed to get on. Reading articles about body ownership, slut shaming and the ever present objectification of the human body has been like someone going into black hidden rooms and turning the lights on, and once they are on, they really cant be turned off again. I’ve had terrible issues with my body for a massive chunk of my life. (No, really? A woman obsessed with looks, I know, yawn) But this isn’t just a first world, billboard, magazine problem, this is a global phenomenon, and where it might manifest in the West as an eating disorder, an inability to go out without makeup, amongst many other unhealthy thought and deed patterns, this idea, this belief that our bodies are not owned by us, at worst manifests itself as a society legitimising the torture and murder of women for not conforming to standards which basically state the female form is sinful and are above all else, someone else’s property.
Not only are we being fed the idea that we need to conform to certain standards, but we are also force fed what I call the “Prince Charming” idea, that we need to be saved by men, that men are somehow superior as earners, thinkers, do-ers. Of course this patriarchal model is also hideously damaging to men, the pressure to conform to such standards is ridiculous. This toxic combination of being told you are not worth more than your looks and that you are useless without a man to protect and serve you, creates a culture of deep enduring competitiveness between woman and obsessiveness about beauty, and an enduring fear of isolation.
So, O.K, lets say we can get our heads around the fact that we are more than clothes horse, doll-like fuck bunnies. We are allowed to have hairy armpits, makeup less faces, cellulite, not give a shit about cleaning the oven and say no to giving a blowjob and realise that we may not only survive without masculine dominance looming over us but that we might actually thrive? But what about if and when we want to be sexy, what about when our bodies happen to conform to sterotype in some way, what if we want to be sexually extrovert? This for me at least is still an area of great contention, confusion and a place that we need to keep shining a light into. It seems to me that we exist in a society that is so scared of female sexual empowerment that we even have problems dealing with nudity when it has nothing to do with being sexy, breastfeeding in public for example still causing a huge furore just perfectly encapsulates the entire problem around this issue. Our bodies have been massively over sexualised in a way that says they are products, buyable commodities, on a par with cars and drugs so that when a woman wants to breastfeed her offspring, she is somehow flaunting both a sex product and a baby, almost as if she were stroking it with a massive dildo in public, when put like that you can see why people might find it obscene…. but boobs aren’t products, and when feeding a baby, woman are not engaged in a sexual act. But yes boobs can be sexy, which, major newsflash, ISN’T A CRIME, but unfortunately sex and sexiness have become a type of currency, something that can be owned, bartered and sold. And a woman conforming to type is often seen as being a vacuous air head, a few synapses up from an inanimate object and is utterly fair game to being groped, assaulted, raped. Of course it’s ridiculous to say that only woman conforming to a narrow stereotype of beauty are at risk of sexual assault, rape affects men, children, and woman of all types and ages, but when an 80 year old pensioner is sexually attacked in her home, no one is going to claim it was her fault. This rape culture is such a terrifying arena to find oneself in, and it was only after seeing what I now credit as an amazingly iconic image of a young woman protesting topless with the words “still not asking for it” emblazoned on her body that I felt a psychological ivory tower built up from years of exposure to victim blaming language come crumbling down. I’ve been raped several times, drunk at parties, even raped by boyfriends who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’ve been molested more times than I can remember and hassled to within an inch of my life, and for years felt deep down somewhere inside that really it was my fault, after all I’d been wearing make up, pretty clothes, got drunk, allowed myself to be vulnerable. What a total crock of utter shit. If someone rapes, gropes or molests it is their choice, men are not powerless and woman are not vessels of temptation, even people who work in the sex industry making completely explicit movies and charging money for sex do not deserve to be assaulted in any way.
I wrote this article on the back of taking a photograph of myself, and I took the photograph after an interaction with a poetry magazine editor. He sent me an image of a beautiful young woman wearing a sexy crop top, he had publicised this image as being the potential front cover for an issue of his magazine that dealt with female rage, he said that the image was causing controversy, that someone had asked him why he was thinking of showing some bird with her midriff out. This struck a chord, one that facebook censorship had been twanging on for some time, this somehow solidified the feeling. The woman in the sexy top happened to be a very talented writer, and of course even if she wasn’t, why was she being seen as just “some bird”? As a person who for years, as I stated earlier, has felt embarrassed, ashamed, unsure of her body, I did a radical thing, I lifted up my top, grabbed a marker pen, wrote 3 words on my tummy; “Kind, Funny, Sexy” and took a photo of my reflection. I sent this image to the editor and said : “here ya go, use this instead”. I’m sure there are many liberated women out there who wouldn’t bat an eyelash at the notion of publicly displaying their breasts, and that’s great, it’s a big deal for me. I’m finally understanding why so many feminist artists work with their own nudity, it’s about taking ownership of our bodies and de-mystifying them. Saying, look, this isn’t a product (have I repeated that enough?!) and for me in this photo, I’m saying that yes I can be sexy and that doesn’t make me a disgusting human being deserving of abuse and hey I’m so many other things too, I’m a mum to 2 brilliant kids, I really try to be as kind and tolerant as I can be, I’m messy, I’m sentimental, I overthink, sometimes overeat, and I have a big pair of tits. I don’t want to feel shameful about sex anymore, I don’t want to feel that I’m somehow dirty, and I don’t want being sexy or not to take up so much space in my head and I want to live in a world free of sexual predators. I think the very fact that we have built up so much shame around sex creates a vicious circle in terms of what turns some people on, for a lot of us, our first sexual awakenings are via pornographic images which we are maybe made to feel are sordid and/or grubby (this was certainly true in my case) we might then associate that with being turned on, and lo a cycle is set up, porn becomes ever more sordid to satisfy that market and of course that industry spills out into wider society. How do we break it? Well I instinctively feel that getting more used to nudity and humanising sexual images is a small step in the right direction. Of course the porn industry is completely varied, caters to all kinds of desires and has inherent benefits and problems big enough to merit its own discussion.
Putting this article out feels terrifying, I’ve seen the horrendous backlash that feminist writers endure, but I’m putting it out there because it feels terrifying, because consciousness can only shift through communication and because when the likes of Donald Trump the groping king are poised on the edge of extreme power, there is actually a state of emergency in the arena of gender politics. This is my two fingers or two breasts as the case may be to a mind-set that says my body is anybody else’s property but mine.