writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Time to overturn the tyranny of porn

The Independent, July 25th 2011

For a woman, it is no longer enough to be successful in your chosen field. You are expected to look gorgeous too

I was rather looking forward to reading the profile of Christine Lagarde, the new head of the IMF, in The Observer magazine last week. Here was a woman I’ve always admired, who’s now in charge of one of the world’s great institutions – a supremely cool, competent hand after the messy shenanigans of the brutish Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

And then, blow me, I looked at the headline, which shrieked, “Is this the world’s sexiest woman (and the most powerful)?” This was The Observer, mind, not the Daily Mail. Here was a woman chosen for her brain, her executive efficiency, her financial acumen and the respect in which she is held by international statesmen, and we are being asked to judge how sexy she is. Does she have nice tits?

To be fair, the piece below was fascinating, and bore no resemblance to its headline. It even quoted a professor saying, “She’s unusual among French female politicians in that there’s nothing coquettish about her”. But it set me thinking about how the bar for women seems to be raised ever higher until it becomes almost impossible to surmount.

It’s no longer enough to be successful in your chosen field: to be a good lawyer or economist or minister. You are expected to look gorgeous too. Yet who would ever expect the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be sexy (let alone the sexiest man in the world)? Or the head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick?

This is a relatively new phenomenon. Of course actresses and pop singers have always been judged on their looks. That’s what they trade on. But not professional women. They were just expected to look, well, professional – dressed tidily and soberly in the female equivalent of a man’s business suit. Now they have to have the face and body of Kate Moss too.

At the same time, the definition of what makes a woman sexy has become more demanding. It’s no longer enough to be earthy, feminine, curvy – a real woman. These days, we are supposed to wax ourselves so as to appear an aberrant, plastic caricature of femininity.

Then we are expected to wear heels so high that they look like they’ve been dragged off one of those soft-porn, semi-bondage posters teenage boys used to have in the 1970s, at the end of legs sheathed in latex. These shoes wreck your feet and cripple your lower back. At a yoga class the other day, I looked in despair at the state of the women’s misshapen toes. They could have been victims of Chinese foot-binding.

High heels stop you running for a bus. They stop you running from danger. You can’t stride out in them; indeed, you can’t even keep up with the man you’re walking alongside. In a word, they make you submissive – just as having a Brazilian makes you look like a submissive pre-teen or willing porn actress.

See the pattern? These trends are sold to us, in a hideously Orwellian fashion, as “empowering”. No, it’s not empowering to be hobbled by excruciating heels. Nor is it empowering to be encouraged to dance suggestively with a pole. It’s tacky, it’s tarty, it’s undignified and it’s wholly inappropriate unless you’ve embarked on a career as a prostitute.

This seeping of sex, and a particular type of porn-inspired plastic sex, into ordinary life is really debilitating for women. I never thought I’d sound like Mary Whitehouse – God knows I loathed her prudishness when I was growing up – but sex should be a beautiful, loving, private, natural, exciting thing between two grown-up people, not an arid, artificial, commodified, public and frankly pervy pressure on the way women are supposed to look even to men for whom they have no desire.

We’re not just expected to mutilate our feet and rip out our pubic hair, after all. We’re supposed to stick needles into our brows, go under the knife, have boob jobs and then starve or vomit the rest of our bodies into submission. The end result, the supposed ideal, is the closest a human can get to a Barbie doll. You only have to look at poor Amy Winehouse, who eventually did most of the above, to see how little it did to raise her self-esteem.

I really feel for my teenage daughters. What twisted messages are they being sent? And if their generation don’t go for the full Brazilian, are their male contemporaries, brought up watching online porn, going to recoil in disgust like John Ruskin did when he first saw his wife naked? After all, these boys didn’t have their parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex to thumb through, as we did; the internet has been their sex education.

Girls have the same problem. One young woman complained to me the other day that her age group get no advice on how to cope with the expense, stubble and itchiness of the pressure to look like Barbie. “Why not try the internet?” I asked. “Because if you type in ‘Brazilian’, all you get is porn.” QED.

So is there a solution? Mine would be to force everyone – but particularly young men and women – to read the recently published How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran. The more enlightened are doing so already. A twentysomething friend of mine went on holiday last week with a gang of friends and no fewer than four of them were engrossed in it.

Apart from being laugh-out-loud funny, warm, humane and brilliantly written, Moran’s book charts a new path for feminism, and it involves men too. For most women, however feminist they are, don’t hate men. Some of their best friends are men. Their lovers and husbands are men. They have brothers and sons. What they want is for men to be as shocked by their current predicament as they are.

And the best men are. Moran’s husband, for one; mine too, luckily for me. A relationship between men and women that is born of friendship and fellow-feeling – or as Moran puts it, politeness – wouldn’t allow women to feel pressured to mutilate themselves in the name of sex appeal. Men would simply say, “I love you as you are.”

All men have to do is turn things around and ask, “Would I wish this on myself?” If the answer is no, then they shouldn’t wish it on the women they love, like and respect. Just a little solidarity would make women feel so much better and more confident in themselves, confident enough to resist the countervailing pressure to Barbify themselves.

If enough of us subjected today’s porn culture to ridicule, as Moran suggests, we could restore a lot of happiness to our lives. If men joined in, it would help enormously. So encourage your friends to take Moran’s book on holiday, and start laughing at the ludicrousness of the position we’ve found ourselves in. Spread the word and who knows? Eventually, we might even be content to admire Christine Lagarde for being the most powerful woman in the world, full stop.

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