7 Jun 2009

I've just caught a clip of the video for Sugababes' latest song, No Can Do, and am somewhat dismayed, although not entirely surprised, at the sexism employed in the video. Yet shouldn't I be cheered that the sexism in the video discriminates against men for once? Well, only if you believe that the sole reason I proclaim myself a feminist is as an excuse to bash men. The video appears to reverse the distasteful 'women as furniture' tactic employed in A Clockwork Orange, by depicting men (clad only in underpants) contorted to create various inanimate objects, such as motorbikes, cars, chairs and tables. The Sugababes sit on, use and 'drive' these objects with a studied indifference to the fact they are composed of humans - an all-too-familiar echo of the way the female body is often used as a homogenised, generic object devoid of individuality (and therefore undeserving of the respect an individual may command). Do I like this video? No, it's creepy and weird. Do I think it's trying to do anything good? No, I think at best it's aiming for feminist approval in the misguided belief that the only thing that will make us happy is seeing all the worst ravages of sexism against women repositioned and aimed at men. And at worst it's just created in a vacuum of complete cultural ignorance, and isn't even attempting an ironic revisit of A Clockwork Orange or a pisstake of the rampant misuse of the female body in music videos - it's just showing off a lot of scantily clad men because the makers think this may up their ratings. Depressing.

In other cultural wastelands, those still concentrating their energies on appropriating the female form for their own gain are out in force now summer's here. Veet, Gillette and all the depilatory crew are advertising around the clock to remind you not to dare pop on a skirt before using their products to create 'a sleeker, more feminine you' (quote from a Veet ad, cheers guys). The conflating of femininity with the need to tame your body's unsavoury growths is nothing new, but it's no less offensive than it was when Germaine Greer pointed it out 39 years ago. Indeed, the name The Female Eunuch originates from Greer's assertion in the same book that women have become 'female impersonators' through their misguided attempts to act and look feminine. These acts - hair removal, odour concealment, make up, heels etc - actually destroy all natural femininity and leave us only with socially dictated artifice, which attempts to cover all the things that make us women. Menstruation and our natural bodily smells are to be covered up, hidden and not spoken of, despite their being at the core of female life. Our body hair - usually far softer, finer and much less visually offensive than male body hair - is to be shaved, waxed, plucked or otherwise ripped from view. And our bodies, in all their soft, curvy glory, are to be trussed up and repositioned by high heels and corsetry to make our shapes more 'feminine' - because obviously mother nature got it so wrong.

That said, I can't claim to be immune. On some fronts, I think I do OK. I'm not afraid to leave the house without make-up or shove my rebellious hair under a headscarf. If people want me in certain places at certain times, they can deal with my face and hair the way they come. If I'm more comfortable without a bra, I won't wear one (especially in hot weather). I rarely wear heels, never for work, (the torture of having to be anywhere for 8 hours a day is bad enough, why add phsyical pain to the mix?) and when I do I select wedges which cushion the feet and hurt the least. On the flipside, I pluck my eyebrows, shave my legs and armpits, and indulge in a bikini-line 'tidy' when swimming is likely to come into the equation. If I dispensed with all these things, I doubt my partner would be that bothered (and if he was, he'd naturally be told where to stick it) or possibly even notice. Most people I encounter on a daily basis don't get close enough to me to notice whether I'm packing a smooth pit or a rainforest under my arm, and if they do, well, what do I care what strangers think? So if I don't do it for others, I can claim I depilate for myself, right? Well, no. I wish I could play that trick, but I'm not going to imagine I'm immune from the dominant social model for women, which is that We Should Remove Hair and Not Doing So Is Gross. From a young age, I knew that's what women did. My mum did it. My aunts did it. My female cousins did it. At the age of 8, I said it was stupid. By the age of 11, I was stealing my dad's razors and joining in the fun. My mum got angry when she found out, because she claimed 'the earlier you start shaving, you then have to keep doing it'. This bizarre logic, it seems to me now, was an implicit acknowledgement of how, once you submit to the notion that a shiny smooth leg is better than a fuzzy one, you're on the hair-removal wagon for life.

Over the years, I have fallen off the wagon. Like a lot of women, I let my bodily hair run rampage in winter, giving myself ample time to get used to my downy legs and curly pits, but still always abandoned then once the sun began to shine and the tights came off. Later, I felt it important to test myself as a feminist and experimented with growing body hair. The world did not crack open. Men and women did not recoil screaming in the street. The other half didn't even seem to notice. And yet, I still found I couldn't wait to crack out the wax and the razor and end the experiment. So I can say it's 'my choice' til I'm blue in the face, but I can't ignore that my decision occurs, not in a vacuum, but in a context where there's nil acceptance of the hairy bod as a viable and attractive option, and where women are steamrollered into conformity by the constant messages of ads like the ones I mention above. I can say those ads are bollocks. I can throw away my razors and let the Chas-fuzz take over. But until I can look at my legs or pits or bikini line when they're hairy, and think of them as just as beautiful, if not more than, as if they were hair-free, I can't say I've really won the battle against those who would have us believe that our 'femininity' lies in changing as much about ourselves as possible.

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