14 Feb 2011

Disappointment with The Independent...

...for this Saturday's Essay by Susannah Frankel, "We fetishise the female form, and then condemn the wish to 'improve' it". Taking as its starting point the recent depressing news story of a British 20 year-old who died after an illegal cosmetic procedure, she basically goes on to defend the very culture which drove Claudia Aderotimi to her death. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that Frankel spends most of the article laying out the various bodily fashions that have been used to torment women over the years - from Rubens and Velasquez via Chanel and Twiggy, through to Kate Moss - as she is a fashion and beauty journalist. What I am dismayed about is her total failure to see these trends for what they all are - a way of tormenting the average women by holding up the most unattainable body types as the most desirable. The fleshy rolls and cellulite-dimpled thighs of Rubens' women were only considered beautiful because of their rarity value at a time when starvation and hard labour were a physical reality for the majority of any country's population. As the Depression and post-war austerity hampered the nation's diet, the well-nourished Mae West and Diana Dors were feted for their ample curves. Yet a few decades and a national conversion to cooking everything in lard later, and just as waistlines expanded, models contracted with the almost sinisterly boyish figures of the 60s fashion scene. I don't think I even need to follow the trend through to the modern day to demonstrate just how perverse and contemptuous of women fashion has always been.

What probably does sum that up nicely though, is the recent inversion of standards which then led this 20 year-old to get industrial silicone pumped into her buttocks. As Frankel points out, "After years of women over the world wondering "does my bum look big in this?", they [will] now be asking: "Does my bum look big enough?". The supposedly desirable female arse may have shifted away from being akin to that of a 12 year-old boy, and now at least be a bit bigger and more jiggly, but this should not be mistaken for progress or a female-friendly fashion world. The fact is, the standard remains as unrealistic and unattainable as ever. My backside probably isn't a million miles away from Beyonce's in terms of actual size, but it also happens to be white, dimpled, with a smattering of stretch marks, and unlike those pneumatic African-American butts, it generally points down rather than horizontally outwards. I'll never be able to fool myself that I'm anything like this woman, even if I can at least claim the meagre victory that at least she's not as emaciated as a grasshopper on Slimfast.

The woman-hating fashion industry will always set the bar just beyond women's grasp, even if it has got smart enough to start pretending that it is interested in promoting 'Real' body shapes. Anyway, I'm not sure Beyonce, a woman who admitted to living on lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper to lose weight for a film role, is someone to look up to - but that's another story. What galls me about Frankel's article is its total failure to acknowledge the misogynistic element to the very world which drove Claudia Aderotimi, and which drives thousands of women every year, to mutilate, distort and alter their bodies with an array of chemicals that'd put ICI to shame. Instead she simply narrates the tale of fashion's hateful treatment of women without any analysis of its implications. While she does admit that "it is not uncommon for designers...to use clothing to transform the female form into something closer to their personal ideal and further from anything nature intended", at no point does she consider or state how very fucked up that is. She even has the audacity to say that whether fashion's distortion of the female form is responsible for harm to women, "is the subject of much debate"; erm, when people are dying from injecting something you might use to seal bathroom tiles into their arses, I'm not sure exactly where the room for debate is.

Of course I'm not endorsing the ridiculously simplistic approach that dictates all eating disorders = the result of seeing thin models in magazines, because eating disorders are complex psychological conditions which are still not fully understood. But cosmetic procedures, be they an Elizabethan women putting lead on her face, or a 17 year-old girl wanting breast implants, have a much simpler, more obvious, and less debatable root. Namely, a society that tells women they are ugly and worthless, and that changing their bodies is the only way to fulfilment. And why does society do this? Well, even if Naomi Wolf has lost all credibility in recent times, her original argument still stands: when women start gaining more rights, it's in the interests of those who feel threatened by that phenomenon, to erode their confidence in any way possible. And the most effective method for that? Still, sadly, making people feel ugly. Frankel also makes the slightly bizarre point that "we are a basically Protestant nation, mistrustful of everything from expensive clothing to face, breast and now, bottom lifts", going on to say that this 'social disapproval' was what further endangered Aderotimi's life because her embarrassment about the procedure meant she didn't tell anyone what she was going to the US for.

Firstly, I have to take issue with this freakish logic that says pursuit of the latest Katherine Hammett outfit is somehow on a par with bodily mutilation - there just is no parallel, sorry. I also take issue with being labelled 'Protestant' for objecting to the promotion of a culture and its associated practices that are both physically and mentally poisonous to women. I don't disapprove because I'm 'not fun' or have some neo-Cromwellian objection to fun, frippery, glitz or gloss. I disapprove because the culture that promotes cosmetic surgery and the altering of the female form for the approval of others is a culture that HATES WOMEN and is now KILLING WOMEN (see also - Kanye West's mother for a famous example of a cosmetic surgery fatality). That's where my mind really boggles - at Frankel's apportioning the blame for Aderotimi's death to a prurient, purse-lipped society instead of the real culprit. For a start, saying that a country where Nuts magazine, Botox and Ann Summers flourish is a country opposed to indulgence, is simply bollocks. But even if it was the fear of disapproval that caused Aderotimi to sneak off to the States in silence, it was not disapproval that killed her. It was cosmetic surgery. Frankel is right to say that it's hypocritical to 'fetishise the female form, and then condemn the wish to 'improve' it'. What we should be condemning is the treatment of the female form as society's plaything, and I don't care how far back into the history of fashion and art Frankel can trace that practice, because historical persistence alone does not make something right.

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