Women’s bodies: Society, Storytelling, Technology (2)

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

To coincide with the production of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood wrote a terrific article in the New York Times about how she came to write the book. She wasn’t sure how to write a dystopian future, so she looked through history and found that she didn’t need to invent anything about what the patriarchy has done to women and what women in turn have done to each other in order to fit into this world.

Just think about foot binding and female genital mutilation, in any story fiction or non, when a grandmother comes in smiling sweetly saying that the young female protagonist has come of age, my heart sinks. There’s no way this is going to end well. Young girls have been prepared for consumption by men, objects offered up to be feasted upon, since time immemorial. Even today, society, fashion and the media keep propagating this awful, awful story by focusing on women’s bodies and how they should and shouldn’t look.

For most of my 20s I lived in France and Switzerland, working in AI and engineering. I rode a bike everyday and went swimming in Lac Leman whenever I could (preferably after midnight). It was a great life for a woman in her twenties.

Living there, I didn’t have any outside input on how I should look or feel about my body. My magazines of choice were Swiss Engineers Monthly and AI in Design and I worked mainly with men so I didn’t have anyone talking about their own physical shortcomings. I had the space and the freedom to enjoy my body and the things it could do, without any comment. Actually that is not 100% true, occasionally the (female) secretary would make critical comments about my nail varnish/hair/make-up and a (female) friend once told me that I really should do something about my hairy legs.

However, when I moved back to the UK, I really noticed a difference. There was a lot more criticism going on which I have come to believe was because celebrity culture was at its height and you couldn’t move in the supermarket for magazines where famous women’s cellulite and wrinkles were circled, critiqued and shamed.

Fast forward to now, women’s magazines are improving (I read Grazia yesterday in the hairdressers and it had two book reviews of feminist thinking) and there is an increasing awareness of how damaging articles about women’s bodies with made up words, like cankles, and observations of things no one ever thought of before, like thigh gaps, can be. However, old attitudes die hard.

Women as objects

It was the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, who first celebrated the naked feminine form back in 330BC, as a soft and wonderful thing. Apparently so the story goes, it had stain on one leg, where a man tried to have sex with it, ‘cos of course things which look feminine are there to be used as sex objects. In Deuteronomy, it is ok to rape a woman in the fields and then give her dad 50 shekels, to basically buy her, and do it over, and over again.

Apparently, everyone loved painting the biblical story of Susanna and the elders (in Daniel) ‘cos it was the opportunity to paint a nude young woman for men to letch over and call art. It is only when we get to Rembrandt’s version which invites the observer of the picture to be a voyeur too that it becomes uncomfortable. But, don’t think Rembrandt was a feminist – he had his live-in servant-come-lover locked up in an asylum when he tired of the fuss she made when he moved his new lady friend in.

Women have only just recently belonged to themselves but women’s bodies still don’t belong to them. In a lecture, reprinted in the LRB, which caused a stir at the time, Hilary Mantel talked about how women’s bodies have never been their own, especially when they are carrying a child who is heir to the throne. She called The Duchess of Cambridge, aka, Kate Middleton, a plastic princess, put together by committee. It was an unkind point (it suggests that Kate had no say in the way she presents herself) in an otherwise intriguing article about how society has viewed women’s bodies throughout history.

Too fat, too slutty, too loud

In an article in the Guardian, Kate Lock says: Patriarchal culture has maintained women’s uncertainty about their bodies (and lives) for a long time. She goes on to say that advertisers exploit this uncertainty, to encourage women to buy stuff to improve their bodies, or to question their behaviour, and this keeps women compliant because our society still has invisible but definite limits to what a woman can and cannot be. If a woman steps over them, she shamed and harangued and made to step back.

In her book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, Helen Anne Petersen discusses at length 10 women who have stepped over boundaries and have been called out on it, for example, too fat to be a film star (Melissa McCarthy) and too old (Madonna) to be sexy. Petersen in turn calls out a society which has a climate that publicly embraces equality but does little to effect change.

We only have to look at the way we criticise people in the public eye. On the TED blog, Samantha Nutt, points out how men are not criticised for being unlikeable nor trolled with crude requests for sexual favors. Even when being criticised women are done so in relation to their bodies and sexuality. Women always have to look bed-able even when changing the world, which equates to being young and sexy.

This means that we only have a small window of time in which to be successful. Contemplating my grey hair I read some of therapist Iris Fodor‘s papers and found that women worry about becoming disposable objects. If we are not childbearing, or looking sexy – because traditionally they have been our roles in society – then we won’t be loved or have any adventures as we age. We become superfluous and will be ignored.

We don’t like middle-aged women very much

Echoing this, writer Stella Duffy wrote in a recent blog that as a middle-aged woman, she is always more likely to be ignored, spoken over, unseen and not given voice. And, she is right. Germaine Greer recently said in an interview, that if Diana, Princess of Wales was still alive she would be 56-years-old and we wouldn’t like her. We don’t like middle-aged women very much. Too old to be fair maidens and too young to be crones, we used to call them witches and burn them alive. Nowadays, we just ignore them.

Consequently, actresses have no work between the ages of 45 and 60 years. Both Isabella Rossellini and Jennifer Aniston have talked about the lack of work for this age, and Meryl Streep said that she resisted playing a witch for many years because of the terror of older women, which she didn’t like.

There is a notion that ageing enhances men and devalues women. Ashton Applewhite questions this belief in her excellent TED talk Let’s end ageism. She asks: Does any woman in this room really believe that she is a lesser version, less interesting, less fun in bed, less valuable — than the woman she was?

Until we change the narrative of women and make it less about our bodies and what our bodies can do, should we choose to do so (look sexy, produce children) we will continue to see women getting ignored and overlooked. And, women will continue to question ourselves in middle-age when we have a great deal to offer society.

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