Category Archives: society

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!

Speaking out online

Tonight I am attending a panel discussion which is being run as part of Social Media Week London. It is entitled Is a woman’s opinion “the miniskirt of the internet”? and will be based on Laurie Penny’s article of the same name.It will be about the often violent and threatening verbal abuse women get for engaging in discussions online.

So given the timeliness of the discussion, I wanted to share an experience a male friend of mine had last night on twitter.  Because its an interesting comparison. It’s a story of a man sticking his neck out on a largely women’s issue, and the response he got. 

This friend, let’s call him Sam, because that isn’t his name, and I had been talking a lot this week about the disgraceful behaviour of The Grammys, inviting Chris Brown back to perform three years after he had to cancel his performance because he was in a lock up mulling over his violent attack on a fellow human being.  It got us into a wider discussion about domestic violence, mutually tutting over the terrifying statistics and generally feeling impotent to do anything.

And then last night Sam (not his name, though), saw one of his idols tweeting a “funny” photo of a white couple, with a baby – posed in 80s family photo style,  In the photo the woman had a huge black eye, and the baby on her lap was black.  The tweet said:

“Just to bring you guys a smile before the day is over 😉 makes you think when we complain it could always be worse”

Raw from the discussion we had just been having, he responded:

“I don’t think joking about domestic violence really works as way to cheer things up to be honest. She’s got a black eye. not cool.”

To which this idol replied:

“Yes and he got a black kid, fair trade 😉 she will heal in 5 days he will pay for college”

So I’m just going to walk away from the justification of any sort of domestic violence by this dude (as well as the assumption he’s made that the father will be the wage earner, that he’ll be paying for anything etc), because people are wrong every day of the week.  And he is just one man. What I want to share with you is the response that this “idol” (using inverted commas because I’ve never heard of him, though in this community he is obviously a bit of a god) and Sam got to their discussion.

1) “that’s not even a real black eye” (it was, by the way)

2) “who said joking about something means you condone it and are for it?!! There’s a big difference.

3) “every time we talk I see your pic flipping the bird That’s domestic violence too, many women receives that pic at their home :-/” (really??)

4) “Life’s too short to take everything do seriously”

5) “lighten up..ur just assuming she got the black eye from domestic violence its just a picture not a story”

6) “hahaha.. Take the black eye anyday!!! Take 2!! Lol. X”

7) “Look at the picture, and get a sense of humour you bloody tube!”

8) “well I thought it was funny… Lol…. Agree to disagree haha”

9) “I was waiting for that one uptight douche and sure enough,lol.”

10) “ever hear of “satire”….lighten up a bit”

11) “does your boyfriend beat you up or something man cause you are over reacting. It was a joke u buffoon”

And when Sam was commented on the defence mounted by the followers, Idol said:

“it’s not my fault I have a great crew of friends here, and when I’m in a fight they jump in with a flying kick 😉 I love them”

Wouldn’t it be nice if victims of domestic violence were all so lucky.

I wanted to close this post with some of the statistics on domestic violence in the UK. Hopefully a quick glance at these will remove any doubts about the unfunnyness of domestic violence “humour”.

  • Over two women per week are killed by current or ex-partners
  • One in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime
  • Between 1 in 8 and 1 in 10 women experience domestic violence annually
  • Less than half of all incidents are reported to the police, but they still receive one domestic violence call every minute in the UK

(stats from Women’s Aid)

Early stage feminists: how to make your point

Over the last couple of months I’ve been getting back into feminist activism in a big way. OK, nothing like as a big as some of the amazing women and men I have been meeting (mainly through twitter), but comparatively, for me, a big way.

I’ve been reading books, blogs, enlightening tweets… I’ve even been to my first feminist conference (Go Feminist, last weekend).  And I’ve got to the point where (I think!) I have learnt a bit better how to pick my fights than when I first started out.  By that I don’t mean I have *stopped* picking fights, rather I am getting better at which proof points to use to justify the requirement for feminism in a 21st century westernised country (which, let’s face it, is the gatekeeper to any productive feminist conversation if the other party is not already a convert).

So I had a nasty reminder of what it was like for me a mere couple of months ago when talking to a friend of mine this week – one of my latest recruits to the church of feminism.  I feel a sense of responsibility for igniting her interest and engagement with feminism (though perhaps I flatter myself).

Since beginning to practice her feminist arguments she has come under quite aggressive attack from friends and family telling her that not only is feminism a big fuss over nothing, but often asserting that it’s the men we need to be worried about protecting as our society is now so heavily laden with privilege for women than the boys are being left behind.

It reminded me of very similar conversations I had with loved ones (often more likely to be female than male).  These confrontations hurt, especially when you are new to the arguments and don’t have a watertight defence against “facts” that they throw at you, even when you know how wrong they are.

So I thought, in case anyone stumbles upon this blog post in the early days of their own feminist journey, I would pass on the advice I gave her, to avoid others becoming disheartened.

  1. The first thing to remember is to use their push back as a reminder of how inherent a subconscious acceptance of the “order of things” is in everyone’s minds. You don’t have to be a chauvinist to accept the current order, it just means you haven’t thought about it. So these friends and family members aren’t the enemy, they just need to be awoken to the situation.
  2. Arm yourself before entering any situation where you find yourself the sole defender of the feminist movement (whether when talking to your partner, or a pub full of colleagues). I am still massively cautious about starting these sorts of discussions because I am not an expert, however every book and article I read gives me more confidence and, importantly, more examples and anecdotes to prove my beliefs. It’s important to get a basic grounding in what UK laws do and don’t cover, and some stats that show the current lie of the land.  This basic grounding doesn’t require a 3 year gender studies degree; a couple of months of interested reading and conversations in your spare time and you will notice how much more knowledgeable and confident you come across in a conversation.
  3. Find accessible ways in for others.  So you’ve made your point and someone is showing the vaguest bit of interest in your philosophy.  Don’t lose them now! Keep a couple of films or book titles up your sleeve (not literally… though that’s an idea…) to recommend as a bite-sized next step into feminism.  My personal favourites are:

Three easy tips to get you started.  Does anyone else have any others they would like to share?

Is it our mums’ fault?

A survey from Netmums was splashed all over the papers in the UK on Wednesday: mums are more critical of their daughters than their sons, it said.

There are some pretty interesting discussions that could be had around the research, drawing links to the one feminist tome I have actually read (Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch).  In TFE, Greer reckons it is mothers who unconsciously create “female” attributes in the next generation of women – being more protective of them which makes them averse to taking risks, and teaching them enjoyment in looking pretty etc.   These “female” attributes are then banded around and used to beat women into submission when they dare suggest that our biological make up does NOT predispose us to “female” (read: underpaid, undervalued) roles in society.

But, believe it or not, this wasn’t the thing that struck me the most. This was:

“The 2,500-strong survey by parenting website Netmums found that although almost one half of mothers say they know it is wrong to treat boys and girls differently, almost 90% admit they do exactly that” (quoted from The Guardian).

No it’s not the 90% figure… look again…

ALMOST A HALF of mothers say they know its wrong to treat boys and girls differently? Do more than half of UK mothers REALLY think it’s right and proper to treat their children differently depending on gender? That worries me.

Boobs on display

Following my recent posts about images of topless women in the mainstream media, I was very interested to read this letter to the editor of The Guardian in the UK.

The original article discussed the question of breastfeeding, and whether mothers who either choose not to breastfeed or who cannot successfully breastfeed, are made to feel like bad mums. There were three letters in response and the top one made for interesting thinking.

The woman writing says:

“while on maternity leave I rang the restaurant where I was planning to join my colleagues for our Christmas lunch to check if there was anywhere I would be able to feed my baby. The rather bemused answer was that I could do it “in the toilet”. The equation of breastfeeding with excretion says it all.”

I have two sisters and three nieces (two of which were breastfed) and yet I confess to exhibiting the classic signs of discomfort when someone breastfeeds in my presence. My own preferred coping technique is the eye-lock – hold their eye and don’t let go. Why on earth do I feel this way? Why are near naked women wandering around trade shows acceptable (and the photo I linked to there is tame to what I have witnessed at some shows where women have nothing at all on their top half), when a mother performing one of the most natural functions in the world is seen as grotesque enough to be confined to the toilet?

Have our sensibilities of proper and improper gotten totally out of control? Have we become more sensitive to breast feeding in public in recent years or has our increasing tolerance of sexualised images of breasts distanced us from our understanding of their proper function?

And please – among all the theory, lets spare a thought for the mothers. No woman should have to sit in the loo while they feed their child. No woman should be made to feel ashamed of her role as mother and provider for her baby. And surely no baby should be forced to eat their meal in a public lavatory.