Monthly Archives: December 2015

Taking back the female body

Truth be told, we live in a society that objectifies women. Women’s bodies are used to sell anything and everything in advertising, acting as objects of visual pleasure in television, cinema and magazines. Historically, this has been because advertising and mass media industries have been dominated by men, whose primary audiences for cars, real estate, technology and household products were men as the breadwinners in patriarchal society.

Many women now work in advertising and media, political correctness in advertising is legally mandated, and transgressions from it are quickly repealed and publicly roasted by media watchdogs. fairlife-pinup-ad-2But this does not preclude the use of barely clothed female bodies in advertisements for completely unrelated products, nor the brazen reinforcement of gender stereotypes in the construction of a selling point. It’s gotten to the point that women are even objectified in media and publications aimed at female audiences: sanitary products, clothing lines and toiletries provide fertile ground for examination of this problematic tendency.

waxing

The way mass media portrays it, women relish their own objectification. Let’s take ads for hair removal products: women in these advertisements sensuously extend their smooth, slender, long legs, relieved to have avoided the disaster of baring any hairs at all on their limbs in public. This 2012 ad for beauty salon Uni K Waxing, which offered 50% discounts on waxing treatments for girls 15 years and younger, perpetuates the notion that hairlessness is a basic necessity – the norm – thereby including girls not even legal to have sex yet in the sexualisation of their bodies.

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“Are you summer-ready?” this protein supplement ad asks. Why, yes, I would say. I can’t wait to hit the beach. But this advertiser isn’t asking about my emotional or psychological eagerness for summer: it’s asking if my body is ready to be shown in public. Let’s see: am I completely hairless? Have I done a summer slim-down by one form or the other of starvation? Have I bought antiperspirant that will prevent my production of body odour, lest I be revealed as a real, hair-growing, food-eating, perspiring human being? The answer to these questions from all women in ads is “Yes, of COURSE I am, and I’m pleased to be so!”

Because of this treatment of women in mass media, the denial or concealment of our own biological truths has become normal. One aspect of the female biology is particularly taboo, and has been appropriated for advertising audiences in a far more palatable form. Menstruation is a fun, music and laughter filled time at which we gather for sleepovers to discuss sanitary products and embarrassing period-related experiences. We valiantly go about our daily business – yoga, shopping, wearing white skirts – comfortable in the knowledge that this pad will absorb any pastel blue, water-like liquid that comes its way, while maintaining maximum flexibility and minimum visibility. Clearly, up until now, girls have had to stop going on dates, wearing anything but granny undies, working out or being in the public eye while menstruating. That way, no one ever has to know. Because that would be the worst thing: for anyone to find out that you were menstruating, because that is GROSS.

In this recent ad by sanitary line Sofy, a beauty’s period arrives in the form of a plain-faced, overweight caricature of herself enacting period-related behaviours: eating junk food in front of the TV, erupting in anger over the non-delivery of pizza and bursting into tears in the same breath; leaving her after a few days as her usual, acceptable self. To be honest, I actually found this ad hilarious – my own experience of periods and PMS is typified by involuntary crying about anything from cute animals to everyday frustrations (opening a tricky latch; having to re-load the toilet paper in the right direction), and the immense bloating of my abdomen renders my self image to cavernous, pizza-ridden lows. But it is offensive in a number of ways, most obviously, its trivialisation of an aspect of female biology that has in the past been used to discredit and belittle women.

 

BMW Ultimate AttractionSome ads encourage the “boys will be boys” mentality – man creates secret cave to avoid his wife while she makes dinner for the family; bikini-clad women apparate to fulfil a beer’s promise of something good upon consumption; girlfriend vetoes the cordless drill purchased by her disobedient boyfriend and trades it for cash. Or this BMW ad, my objection to which I can’t imagine needs explaining.

 

 

Or this Old Spice ad in which bikini-clad women fawn over a man because he just smells so damn good – whether it is his irresistible fragrance, the sensual bubbles massaging their bodies in the hot tub or their implied lack of cognition, they don’t even realise that he is a robot rather than a real man.

There are so many things wrong with these representations of contemporary culture – in fact, they are insulting not only to women but also to men in a society moving away from gender stereotypes – that I hardly know where to begin.

I think what needs to be said is this: bikini-clad women may continue to appear in ads for television channels and phone plans, hairlessness may continue to be next-to-godliness, and menstruation may continue to be a misunderstood, unsavoury spectacle for us to conceal at all times (it is only the reason that all human life exists, and the source of approximately $25 million per year in taxes on sanitary products in Australia, after all). We may not be able to stop it – at least not without years of laborious legal action. What we can do is move away from passively enabling this objectification by taking back ownership of our bodies, as was the message of feminist art group COMBO’s Paris demonstration (featured image).

With so many factors appropriating our bodies for commercial use, it’s easy to be swayed by the notion of femininity that they perpetuate. But as owners of our own bodies, the only thing that matters is our own perception and our own prerogative: wax when we want, satirise periods how we want to, be naked when we want, be sexual when we want to be. This doesn’t mean that we have to stop enacting the gestures of femininity to which we are accustomed: being an empowered woman does not forbid grooming, waxing or relishing sex appeal. It just means liberating ourselves by considering only our own opinion, our own wishes and our own self image in matters of body and beauty.

Foremothers

What makes a woman a Feminist? Some things that shape our identity are universal: from our parents we inherit our biological make-up, our language and a spate of social and personal mannerisms. But change is instigated by those who break away from the frictionless familial, societal and cultural mould and forge a new path for themselves, undaunted by uncertainty. I cannot claim to have taken this kind of solo leap into the unknown: a century of empowered women have fought policy and prejudice to allow me – us – the opportunities that are now my rights. Moreover, the lives of my foremothers are emblazoned with tenacity, independence and self-belief in times before these values were so ardently indoctrinated for women.

With this in mind, when my maternal grandmother recently asked for help in recording memoirs of early life on a Dictaphone, I took the opportunity to enact my own information-gathering agenda. I prepared some questions with which to gently nudge her through cloudy memories and meandering stories of formative years (allowing maximal flexibility for the elderly person tangent factor).

My grandmother grew up in small town New South Wales, the second of nine children. I’m told that they “lived off the smell of an oily rag,” but not by Nan, to whom this seems to be an extraneous detail. Her father was a ‘service car’ (taxi) driver whose strict, Methodist parents had rejected him on account of his choice of wife: when he chose to marry a woman whose unapologetic delight in dancing would surely drag him to hell with her, they wrote him out of their wills and wiped their hands clean of him.

His defiant resolution to marry for love rather than socio-economic or religious propriety marked, I believe, the inception of a culture of respect for women that would expand the possibilities in life for his wife, his daughters, his granddaughters and their daughters after them. Ken Wein set a precedent: rules imposed by, and opinions of, institutions – be they religious or cultural, or people, be they politicians or your parents – should not overshadow or eclipse one’s own educated judgement of character and personal code of ethics. Ergo, just because others alleged that women should be a certain way, did not mean you should believe or endorse it. Love and personal freedom are our rights and universal, primal needs, and by holding them to be more important than social and cultural regulations, Nan’s parents modelled liberal ethics that recognised and promoted equality, respect and acceptance.

Indeed, they were unfazed by Nan’s unusual tom-boyish behaviour. At age 5, her hair entwined in curling rags per her adoring, unsuspecting aunt’s tradition, she had her brother hack it off with craft scissors and ran excitedly to inform her parents of the change: “LOOK! YOU’VE GOT TWO BOYS NOW!” Nan and her hackjob bob clung to her father’s and brothers’ company more often than her mother’s and sisters’, playing with sticks and stones outside rather than babies and bonnets inside. Nanny’s parents were supportive and gentle, never smacking with a disciplinary hand, and their preoccupation with maintaining the familial home meant she quickly developed intellectual autonomy and maturity far beyond her years. By the time she was 12, Nan was the acting Eldest Child for 7 younger siblings, a role that she took very seriously. She coordinated the Sunday Schooling of her siblings which they did by correspondence, leading them to the Homework Tree and supervising their completion of all coursework satisfactorily. Nan was bright: her performance at school earned her a scholarship to local government school otherwise beyond the reach of her parents’ income.

She continued to excel in her studies as well as extra-curricular activities – she was a writer for and co-editor of the school’s magazine along with her best friend, a role that she would have pursued as a career in an ideal world.

Unfortunately, the world is not ideal, and university was not free. Nursing was within the familial budget, and unlike Journalism or Teaching, both scholarship and board were provided. Nan became a nurse at age 20 and got a job at Beaudesert Hospital where, a few years later, she met her future husband, Bernie. They married at age 24 and had their first of four kids shortly thereafter, and just like that, aged younger than I am now (having barely started my career), Nan’s career was over: by law, women could not return to work as public servants after having children. While the post-war government had employed married women to alleviate the shortage of labour, the marriage bar remained until 1966, as did widespread unease over the ‘proper’ role of women. Still, she was happy – this was the norm, and she loved her husband and children – but what happened to all that promise, all that pent up intellect and strength and drive?

Fate was kind to have given her two daughters who grew to match Nan’s indefatigable industriousness and incredible self-discipline. Studies have shown that communities with strong female leaders and daughters of working mothers have higher aspirations, complete more years of education, are more likely to be employed in management roles and earn higher incomes. Like many daughters of 1950s women, mum and her sister were raised with the knowledge that they could do anything they put their mind to – a climate of infinite possibilities and therefore, extremely high expectations.

It’s possible that my mother’s upbringing in this environment is responsible for a range of neuroses: a catastrophic, nuclear explosion probably still couldn’t stop mum from getting up at 5, going for a run, working a 12 hour day, doing a few selfless favours and coordinating the affairs of her parents and (adult) children. But it’s also the reason that she and her sister are both in high level management positions, my mother at a girls’ high school, being a strong female role model for not only her own two daughters but hundreds of other young girls at the precipice of their own independent, adult lives and potential careers. It’s the reason she chose to return to work after having my siblings and I, and that she was unfazed and resolute in doing so despite her (purest of heart and intention) mother-in-law’s repeatedly outspoken disapproval. It’s the reason she tactfully calls out everyday sexism with flawless argumentative intellect and points a finger at the remnants of patriarchy in our culture with an educated, analytical mind. Ultimately, it’s also the reason that I now do as well.

Through this retrospective of my maternal ancestry, one thing has become clear. I learned to demand respect and fight for equality down to the last socio-cultural stigma from Mum, and Mum would not be a model of feminist values if it weren’t for Nan: an obvious testament to the importance of strong female role models in the empowerment of women. But Nan would not have believed herself deserving of equal respect, rights and opportunities if it weren’t for her father, whose choices in life were manifestations of his own belief in equality, tolerance and liberal ethics. And to me, this is a powerful illustration of the fact that equality is a paradigm upheld by both male and female role models, never more powerfully than in collaboration.