Yesterday was a day that featured both the demise of Page Three in The Sun (unconfirmed) and a celebrity reality TV show featuring at least two former glamour models. Four of the female houseguests have had cosmetic surgery (five if you count the one that left earlier in the week) and one of them has had eighteen boob jobs and umpteen attempts to make herself look like Barbie with cosmetic surgery.
Call me a genius, but it doesn’t take much to see that there’s a connecting story here. I watched with horror as Alicia Douvall – she of the eighteen boob jobs – recounted that she’d only just learned ‘letters and shapes’ with her three-year-old daughter and that all that mattered to her was having great ‘tits’ and to be ‘fuckable’ to men. Oh dear god.
A male Twitter follower seemed surprised when he observed that Alicia’s self-esteem was clearly tied to being desirable to men. Well, yeah. Don’t men know that most straight women tie their self-esteem to being desirable to men from an early age and that we are encouraged to do so for the rest of our lives? It seems they don’t, and I am surrounded by well-meaning men of all ages who tell me that this sort of thing doesn’t exist. They genuinely don’t see it. They’re not in a world where it matters how fuckable they are but they constantly rate women on how desirable they are. It’s the Way Things Are.
I grew up in a household where The Sun and Titbits were the main sources of reading material. A typical ’70s upbringing involved watching Miss World with your dad, and all voting on the ones you thought were the prettiest ladies, commenting on their hips, their boobs, their hair. I loved it. I thought about which one of dance troupe Legs & Co I’d like to be when I grew up (Cherry Gillespie) and I looked at the Page 3 girls and hoped I’d look like Linda Lusardi when I was older. I blushed when various family members and friends would comment on my body – no part of it was left unscrutinised by the people that surrounded me, male and female. I’d say that started around the age of eight.
Even before her death in her 70s, my mum would still comment on my clothes, body, hair or face whenever I saw her. It was like a default setting and it is still a really common first point of conversation between women. You often get ‘nice hair’ or ‘did you lose weight?’ before you’re asked about your Actual Life. I now make a point of only saying stuff like that once all the important things are out of the way, but I still say it, mainly because I know it will boost the confidence of the woman hearing it.
In my twenties and thirties, once my crippling body-image problems had left me (go figure) I just got used to the running commentary on my appearance and I enjoyed the ‘game’ of being attractive to men. Like many young women, I looked for constant affirmation and got it from friends and passing strangers. I got a kick out of looking good and being sexually attractive. It was fun. It is fun. Losing a significant amount of weight in my late thirties gave me another confidence boost and the attention I got rocketed. I thrived on it for years.
It’s only recently, having done all the man-pleasing sexy dresses, heels and lingerie things, that I’ve realised what I was doing. And why I so don’t need to do it now. I don’t need male attention, approval or commentary to exist. Much of the commentary is designed to objectify you and confirm a sense of entitlement to your body, and it’s no longer something I would seek out.
I wonder if this sort of enlightenment only happens when you hit a certain age, and this is the reason why there is often a tension between younger and older women on the subject. Hearing Katie Hopkins and Michelle Visage suggest to Alicia Douvall in the Big Brother house that she could try just being herself, without the tits, seemed to demonstrate that nicely.
Often, young women (and men) hit back and accuse older women of being ugly, undesirable and just plain jealous of them. What if we can see what you’re doing and just want you to make you aware of what’s happening to you? In their desire to become sexually desirable both Alicia and Katie Price wrecked perfectly beautiful young faces and bodies. That, in my view, is a damn shame.
I think young women aspire to be Page Three models because it empowers them in a world where their primary currency is sexual desirability. I really am all for women owning their sexuality – god knows I do – and having the right to take an active part in the free expression of it, but I’d just like them to know the context in which they are doing it. Their bodies are the primary expression of womanhood in a national newspaper that is being viewed by eight-year-old Lisas who aspire to be them, and learn that their only currency is youth, beauty (in a narrowly defined sense) and sex. They should know that in the same newspaper, women are vilified for being as sexually active as men. The only acceptable face of womanhood is a meek, static, exposed one on Page Three.
By all means, be part of a world where female sexuality is celebrated in all its diversity – be part of the tribe of women who make money from their bodies in webcam accounts, table dancing, erotic imagery and female-friendly porn. Just know that this is a world where we are objectified and forced to fit a stereotype from an early age. Ask yourself if what you are doing is a free expression of your sexuality and the body you were born with.
Just ask the question.