Category Archives: Politics

Body confidence and culpability

I’ve been having an interesting debate with someone on Twitter this morning (Charlotte Vere, founder of Women On; “an independent, non-partisan think tank that aims to transform the debate around women”), and wanted to share because, frankly, I cannot understand how my sparring partner is justifying her opinions anymore. 140 characters is limiting in this regard. While it produces some very appealing soundbites, you don’t get to explore complex matters in appropriate depth. So I’m reverting to the blog, and I invite my fellow debater to comment if she wishes.

It started like this, from her:
“Body confidence? Banning photoshop won’t help.”

I checked whether she was just being provocative because it seemed like an incredibly weird position to take, especially for a woman who supposedly “campaigns for women, but not at the expense of men”.

No, she meant it.

And so began the discussion.

Over the course of the morning, between my meetings, I’ve been responding to her defence of photoshopped images of female bodies and faces in the media. Her argument, it seems, is that women are responsible for our own body confidence, cosmetics and dieting are in no way a bad thing, and the media has no effect on any of these things. Images of ideal beauty have been around since the year dot, and worrying about your body is just a teen “time of life thing”.

To avoid overlaying my bewilderment to the source material, here are the original tweets:

Me:  do you really believe that about photoshop or was that a provocative comment? I can’t tell.

Her: Yes, I do. Banning Photoshop is ridiculous and nothing to do with giving people ‘confidence’ in their bodies

Me: but what, then, do you believe is undermining their confidence in their bodies in the first place?

Her: ’twas ever thus. The solution is in education and building self esteem, not focussing on bodies in magazines. [cont] When I was in my teens, girls and boys obsessed about how they looked. There was no Photoshop then. It is a time of life.

Me: there were, however, idealised & ‘perfected’ posed images. Photoshop is the next step in that. Now the images are impossible. [cont] women have long aspired to an impossible goal. I’d argue for more diversity in female images in general for healthy self-esteem [cont] also the problem is not a teen problem. The diet/cosmetics industries wouldn’t be booming if so niche.

Her: They have always been impossible for us mere mortals. Always.

Me: that’s my point. Who is this immortal woman and why have we created her? She only serves to undermine real women.

Her: She only undermines real women who lack confidence and THAT is my point about body confidence. It is not about banning Photoshop! [cont] What’s wrong with cosmetics?! What’s wrong with dieting?! It is up to you if you chose to use/do either.

Me:  firstly there’s nothing wrong with cosmetics. There is something wrong when women feel the *have* to hide their natural face

Her: Most women I see in the street clearly don’t feel that need!

Me: secondly, where do you think confidence comes from? It’s about our standing against society expectations and ideals. [cont.] and the media creates society’s expectations and ideals so should be held responsible for the consequences in confidence

Her: Nope. Confidence comes from managing our own expectations. You have to understand who you are and what makes you special. [cont] Again no. ‘The media’ as you call it is a hodge podge of different ideas and you can pick and choose which ones you embrace.

Me: no woman is an island. Our own expectations are also built through our interactions with society. [cont] women are told what society values (young, “beautiful”, flawless) & we aim for that to be valued too.

Her: Sure. Her interactions with her society, her family, her community … the list is endless. Banning Photoshop is not the answer! [cont] ’twas ever thus. Society might idolise one thing or another. Most people don’t waste time on trying to be that thing.

I later referred her to Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, because I didn’t want to paraphrase such excellent proof of my argument.  She replied “I am good thanks. Something tells me I would not agree.”  A shame, I feel, surely we should spend more time reading things with which we disagree than those who already sing the songs we do?

Luckily someone else stepped in and joined my side of the debate, because I was running out of energy to continue.  The upshot for me is that (and here she sets out her stall)…

Photoshop relies on our innate trust in the truth of photography (“the camera never lies”) and sells us a lie.  If we see a cartoon, or hear something described, we know to question it (or some of us do anyway), but when we see an image it is sold as a truth – it certainly never has a big warning sticker that says “this photo has been subject to photoshopping. This woman doesn’t really look like this at all, she actually looks pretty much like you”.

Photoshopping is just part of the problem.  If the images in our media better represented us as humans (rather than projecting an aspiration as if it is norm), I would be happier.  And I genuinely believe we would all be more confident. We would however see a substantial drop in spend on cosmetics, fashion, cosmetic surgery, diets…. and I guess that would in turn hurt the advertising spend of these companies with, guess who, the media that use the aspirational images in the first place.  Interesting that…


The mini-skirt of the Internet?

I’m going to attempt to live blog from the Social Media Week London “Women In A Room” event. When I say live blog, I really only mean “write while it happens so my laziness and short-timedness don’t mean I never write at all”. I will then, should this go ito plan, upload it pretty much straight after the event. You will of course then be captivated and simultaneously feel like you’ve been here all the time, while wishing you had been.

Great huh?

Well let’s just see how we go…

A hush descends … (Too theatrical?)


And now I’m on my train home. I didn’t write a jot of this during the event (I posted a few tweets though). Reason was, the event was excellent and I was too busy being a Woman In A Room. Plus there was much more participation than I’d anticipated and very little sit-back-and-think-of-feminism.

So here are my post-event thoughts.

Format: excellent. A couple of panellists, no presentations, just some questions to get them talking and to get the room warmed up. The wine was good too, for making friends. We then had a few questions (actually really informed comments more than questions) from the floor, before swiftly breaking into discussion groups. Brilliant chat followed, then more informal continuation of discussion and (ironically?) the socially normal closure by twitter name exchange.

Discussion: while the Laurie Penny article ostensibly started us off, the evening centred more on social media than I had anticipated. I was expecting something more broadly looking at women commenting and receiving comment online. I was imagining a couple of recent bad experiences I’d had commenting on articles in right leaning online papers.

So at first I confess to thinking the evening would be more basic, topic-wise, than I’d hoped. Oh ego-laden me…

The group I was part of included a community manager/PR person, a UI specialist and a feminist YouTube channel owner. And the topics we covered ranged from:

– the threat of the anonymous commenter, and the opportunities when using anonymity yourself

– the responsibility of media and community managers around moderation

– the ‘genderisation’ of language, tone and approach in social media

– the usefulness of multiple, disparate and fragmented social media channels to attempt to represent the many faces of a modern human (& the journeys they may be on)

The memorable bit: a question asking for the panellists’ opinions on a social meme which saw women tweeting and calling out abusive and rude names they are called under the #thingsyoucallme hashtag. One of the panellists said she’d be cautious of bringing attention to negativity and negative persons (disclaimer: I’m massively paraphrasing), and that by using their language (e.g. The C word) it reflects on you. Memorable? Yes, coz I got a bit angry and shakily told the room it reminded me of women rape victims being told that public knowledge of the rape will reflect badly on them. I stand by my comment and essentially….

Conclusion: …. I loved the event because it *wasnt* a bunch of women agreeing. Noone had an air of feeling they needed to agree for solidarity. We disagreed (often the commenting audience disagreeing with the panel) without aggression or accusation. But in the spirit of discussion and thought.

Well done Women In A Room. I’ll be back!

I’ll edit to add links when on a computer. Just google Women in a room for now!

Policy decisions – spreading the help

This morning David Cameron is widely covered in the media, ruminating on the discussions he attended yesterday where state leaders exchanged policy experiences on a number of topics important to feminists.

The headline yesterday was the achievements of Sweden in increasing the number of women on the boards of large companies following the introduction of mandatory quotas.

But today the papers seem to have picked up on another angle. One that intrigues me as much for the outcry from left-leaning feminists (actually, let’s be honest, most feminists on less than £50k a year!), as for the scarcity of its details.

According to the papers, Cameron is pondering the value of giving tax relief to people who hire domestic staff.  Apparently in Sweden the very rich benefit from this arrangement and they find it is great for job creation, particularly among immigrant communities.  Interesting to also pause to reflect that the jobs it creates are probably largely for women – what with domestic employment still the realm of females.

Of course the papers have had a field day with denunciations of elitist protectionist tax policy, and puns on the Jeeves and Wooster stereotype, and quite likely by the end of the day I will be firmly in the camp of the Good Lord What Was He Thinking?  But I wanted to post this while I think there may be a spark of sense hiding behind this vulgarly unrefined idea.

Here it is:

Women on the cusp of board positions tend to be the higher earners among society, and we constantly hear that they “choose” not to return to work after having babies. Perhaps their husbands are equally stashed so they simply don’t need to, but I think that ignores the obvious ambition of women who have come this far. So something else is stopping them returning to work – and I believe it is in part to do with getting enough support for their other role (that of mothers, because lets recognise statistics strongly show the home work remains her responsibility no matter her salary).

I have among my friends a couple such women, and the way they have managed a full time return to the cut and thrust and hefty time commitment of board level positions is by hiring nannies. Live in, live out, whatever. Currently in this country (though interestingly, not in France), parents have to pay all the same employer taxes as a small business when hiring dedicated childcare (or other domestic support – though that isn’t where I want to dwell because I do agree this whole argument becomes a whole lot more tenuous when we are mourning the hassles of a maintaining a beautiful lawn, or waxing teacup rings out of Georgian furniture).

I think I would probably largely support a tax break for child care in every form – whether that is privately hired or within a group/nursery setting.

I have absolutely no idea whether Cameron’s musings are currently touching on this at all, or whether he genuinely is worried about the decline in topiary skills within the UK labour market. But it’s just a thought I had.

Did you have any? Go on, I know you do….

One step forward, one step back?

Monday’s Canberra Times’ Times2 supplement featured a long profile of the director-general of the World Health Organisation (syndicated from The Guardian in the UK).

The article was a pleasure to read – fascinating to hear about Margaret Chan’s job, how she got where she did and the issues that the WHO is grappling with; swine flu the obvious current distraction, but also the effects of climate change on the world’s health.

Chan only started medical training to spend more time with her boyfriend – a little personal fact I loved considering the heights she has reached.

Do read the article, it’s just the kind of thing I was asking for when I said women need to continue to see successful (and human) women profiled in the mainstream media.

However I must say; given the topic and the subject of the piece it seemed utterly incongruous that the last paragraph should mention a conference she had recently presented at in Sharm-el-Sheikh (I am guessing it was at the recent Human Rights Council) to “address the spouses of world leaders on maternal death rates”. Seems a woman can run the WHO, but matters of such weight still need presenting to the wives of the men who really run things around here. Is it still necessary to rely on pillow talk from wives to get women’s issues on the political agenda??


The recent European elections achieved electoral turnouts of just 34% in the UK. Across Europe, few countries performed much better. In Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece voting is compulsory, but even with these measures the Italians consistently turnout higher numbers than the Greek.

In Australia voting in all elections is also compulsory – with a fine for those who forget. This system ensures turnouts of around 95% at most elections. But last year’s American Presidential elections which, in notable contrast to the EU elections, so grasped the attention of the world still only managed to bring out 56.8% of the population.

So what are these numbers telling us? That despite fewer than 50 years passing since universal suffrage was achieved, we no longer care?

I would like to particularly make the point that we should pay attention to universal suffrage, not women’s suffrage, because although a monumental step forward, that which is labelled ‘women’s enfranchisement’ is only part of the picture. The Suffragettes have long been heroes of mine, but with black women in the US (for example) not being given the vote until the 15th Amendment was enforced in 1964, there is only some gratification the country can take in giving white women the vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.

Why is it that we can all appreciate the efforts of the Suffragettes in their painful and traumatic (and occasionally fatal) hunger strikes, yet not find the time to vote? How can Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech continue to resonate for individuals the world over… yet not drive them to the polling station?

These people were not campaigning for their democratic rights simply to make a point. They didn’t see the ability of citizens to have some say in their own governing as a ‘nice-to-have’. Something to put on the mantelpiece and look on with pride when we see riots in Iran and supportive green avatars all over Twitter.

In Saudi Arabia and Vatican City, women are still prohibited by law from the democratic process. In Bhutan each household has just one vote – and the societal conventions mean the decision is usually made by the male head of the household. In Lebanon women have to have proof of education to at least elementary level (something their male counterparts do not need) to be allowed to vote. In Brunai and the UAE no one has a right to vote, because there are no democratic elections.

I believe that the democratic responsibility of individuals, not just their rights, is a fundamental part of any democracy and forward thinking society. It is intriguing that the political ideology by which the majority of the world’s population judges the advancement of a nation seems to have such high levels of antipathy on an individual level.