by Meghan Lewis
I can think of many greater threats to feminism than a photograph of a woman without make-up. In fact I fail to see how this can be seen as a threat to feminism at all. However, in a controversial article recently published, Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones attacks British television presenter Holly Willoughby for tweeting such a photograph saying, “My feeling is that not wearing make-up is in fact anti-feminist.” Jones’ elaborates by saying that women who do not wear make-up are ‘showing up’ the women who do.
The conflicting messages about feminism highlight the perils of being a feminist in patriarchal societies where sexist rhetoric is so deeply entrenched in all of us, including women and girls. Not only are women and girls receiving contradictory messages on feminism, they are also inundated with unrealistic images of women in the media. But what is the impact on young women and girls who are exposed to such views and images?
Worryingly, there is a growing pool of research that shows a strong correlation between the amount of time exposed to media and advertising and a distorted view of body image. Airbrushing and the disproportionate use of stick-thin models contribute to a misleading representation of women. Furthermore, women are often portrayed as sexual objects, pandering to the male gaze. Subsequently adolescent girls are developing a distorted view of their own bodies and sense of self-worth.
The NetGirls Project explored the relationship between social media and body image and found that over 40 percent of the teenage girls who participated in the study were dissatisfied with their bodies. The study also showed that the more time girls spent using social media, the more likely they were to feel body-shame and lower self-esteem.This is a concept I understand from personal experience. I am acutely aware of the pressure placed on women to look a certain way and actively argue with unrealistic expectations that are so harmful to women and girls. Yet I still feel the impact of such imagery, and it affects the way I have viewed myself and my own body.
As a teenager I remember feeling self-conscious about my weight. I tried to hide my freckles and wished I were taller. As an adult, these conflicts have not gone away. Although I am happier in myself, I still have days when I feel bad about my own body in relation to the images in the media. In addition to these feelings, I also feel guilt. I feel guilty that such pressures affect me when I believe that women should be free from unrealistic and unfair physical aspirations.
I recently asked Dr. Caroline Heldman, Assistant Professor of Politics at Occidental College for her thoughts on how feminists can live within patriarchal structures and whether conforming to expectations and challenging them are mutually exclusive. Dr. Heldman, who served as both an expert in the film Miss Representation and a consultant to the producers, told me “Until we change patriarchy, women can only play within this system. If we reject the game altogether - not worrying about the way we look - then we will be penalized through economic, political, and social discrimination.”
While the portrayal of women in advertising and the wider media is problematic, what about the self-professed feminists who serve as role models to young women and girls?
Last year, the American singer, songwriter, record producer and actress Beyoncé made headlines by saying “I need to find a catchy new word for feminism, right? Like Bootylicious.” However, since her days in the R&B group Destiny‘s Child, Beyoncé has been promoting conflicting ideas on feminism.
"Bootylicious," released in 2001 by Destiny’s Child, arguably encourages girls to be body positive and self-confident of their shape. However, "Nasty Girl," also released in 2001, suggests that some women may be more ‘bootylicious’ that others, and that unless women have limited ‘jelly’ distributed in the right places, they should not be so quick to embrace their bodies.
"Nasty Girl" also trashes women for wearing revealing outfits despite the form-fitting, sexy clothes the trio was known for wearing. This suggests that it is only okay for women who conform to limited societal perceptions of beauty to wear revealing clothes, hardly an empowering or body-positive message for women.
I am not sure what Beyoncé believes defines feminist ideals; but in my book calling other women nasty, sleazy or trashy, as she does in Nasty Girl, is distinctly anti-feminist. But is there an unfair expectation for women in the media to represent feminist principles?
Dr. Heldman explains, “It's easy to blame individual female performers who have to work within a patriarchal system that values them as sex objects and bodies, but we should be blaming and changing the system. … [It’s] unjust, and women who want to move ahead in it will inevitably uphold the system and engage in unjust actions.”
It is time that we realise that feminists come in all shapes and sizes. Some may wear heels and make-up; some feminists may not wear bras. The physical package of a woman is not what makes a feminist, but rather a commitment to gender equality and celebrating diversity amongst women.
It is deeply concerning that women like Beyoncé or Liz Jones discredit other women based on how they present themselves. As Dr. Heldman tells me, “People who openly engage in representations or actions that are damaging to women aren't feminists by definition.”
Women, I believe, have far greater potential to affect social change if we work together and support each other. Attacking other women is the real threat to feminism.
About the author:
Meghan Lewis works for a youth project supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and unsure young people. She has been a key actor in the formation of Cambodia’s first LGBT group, Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK), a group of local and international LGBT volunteers working together towards a future free from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. She has published articles based on sexual orientation and gender in DIVA magazine and was long-listed for The Guardian International Development Journalism 2012 competition.
Meghan was born in South Africa and grew up in Kwa-Zulu Natal before moving to the UK in 1997. She studied Education at the University of Brighton and lived in rural and urban Cambodia from 2008-2011. Throughout her personal, academic and professional life, her primary passion has been to try to reduce the inequalities in society and work towards a future where opportunities are accessible to all people regardless of ethnicity, economics, gender or sexuality.