I recently picked up this book in Waterstones and have just finished it. It was so gripping that it took me all of three days to totally devour it. It totally reminded me exactly why I class myself as a feminist and has led me to reconsider a few of my own life choices and some of the behaviour I participate in. It got me thinking about the ways in which our hypersexual culture affect us all. I've always considered myself pretty clued up when it comes to the sexualised society we live in. My mother was, and still is, an ardent feminist and being a big reader myself I'd got through The Second Sex and The Female Eunuch by the time I was 15. The bands I listened to also had a strong influence on me, and they were always artists who were very opinionated on the importance of not judging or discriminating in terms of gender or sexuality. Morrissey declared himself the "prophet of the third sex" and a lot of Manics fans I know are bi/pansexual or gay, or transgender. You'd have thought this was encouraging. Despite the very obvious ways that sex is used in the media to influence and to control, there's always alternative culture to return to, to take solace in, right? Well, having thought about the ideas Natasha Walter discussed in her book, I'm not so sure.
It's true that mainstream culture is a huge influence on us all, whether we like to think so or not. I know for a fact that despite my unconventional and liberal upbringing a lot of my self worth has been tied to sex. At university, probably the worst time in my life, I slept around quite a bit in order to validate myself and increase my self worth. In hindsight I find it shocking that I believed that being sexually desired by a drunk stranger was the way to make me feel good about myself. I never considered doing something for myself personally, seeking help or engaging in any activities that really would help my self worth. I do now feel that in many ways this is a direct consequence of living in the pornographic culture that we do. Comparing yourself to porn stars and models, to the girls who saturate every single piece of media you encounter; that can't be good for anybody. I know that many girls engage in the same behaviour I did and enjoy it immensely; but that doesn't have to be the only way.
Now, it is not only the Nuts and Zoo type girls who we have to fend off. It would be slightly easier for me to distance myself from the pneumatic blonde, the stick thin pouting girls with breast implants and impossibly long legs. That was never my "look". I liked the alternative side of things; tattoos, piercings, vintage clothes. But even that has been damaged by relentless sexualisation. The SuicideGirls phenomenon is presented as an alternative to the mainstream culture. Their website states that "SuicideGirls is a community that celebrates ALTERNATIVE BEAUTY and alternative culture from all over the world." This idea of "alternative beauty" is stressed very heavily on the site. The girls have tattoos and piercings, they shout. They're quirky and individual, not just Barbie dolls from a factory line. It's refreshing, they claim. It's fun and sexy and obviously arousing but not in the exploitative or damaging way that more mainstream pornography can be.
I disagree. If you examine the models on the site and take away the gothic packaging, there isn't much to differentiate them from the girls you might see in Zoo magazine. They all have good bodies, straight teeth, nice make up, pretty faces, big eyes, good skin. They may have dreadlocks, or tons of piercings, or be covered in tattoos, but the beauty that they're selling is not much different from that it claims to be against. Models from the site have reported widespread abuse, that respect for women is just the same if not lower than in conventional pornography or erotic modelling. Previously I had seen it as refreshing and exciting, and in many ways had actually been inspired by them. They're tattooed and pierced but they're hot! I felt it was exciting and different. Now, I think I was wrong.
It makes me wonder; what's left for women? When even alternative and underground cultures are being taken over by cookie cutter good looking women, where do those who don't fit in the very limited spectrum of "beauty" go? I'd like to be able to define myself outside of my sexuality and would hope that younger girls would too. To be a woman is not to be a pair of breasts and a bum. Our role is not to titillate and perform for men. Obviously everybody wants to look attractive, but that doesn't necessarily mean ticking certain boxes. I have stretch marks. One of my boobs is bigger than the other. I have a flabby stomach and I burn after 3 minutes in the sun. I'm not tall, I'm not thin, I'm not toned, I'm not tanned and I never, ever will be. Previously, on nights out or when with more traditionally beautiful girls, this made me feel small and insignificant. But the fact that I'm not "conventionally" attractive doesn't make me less of a woman. It doesn't even make me less sexy. Your self worth is not tied up with your sexuality. I'm so glad I read this book at a time when I most needed to be reminded of this. I hope other girls will see this message too and come to realise they can do so much more with their lives than make themselves into a work of erotic art simply to be devoured by men. I hope they realise that, although they can go into glamour modelling or pornography, that there are thousands of other opportunities for them too. I hope they realise that they are not defined by their sexuality. We can do what we want and this should never be defined by what is expected of us. So ditch your fake tan and bin the fake eyelashes. We can rebuild respect for ourselves and for other women one step at a time. I'm with you all the way.