Monday, 20 January 2014

Sisters are doing it to themselves

Is it just me or is there an enormous amount of stuff about 'body image' in the media at the moment? Maybe I listen to too much Woman's Hour on Radio 4 but it does seem to be the issue du jour.
I really don't want to trivialise it. I like to think I'm as much a feminist as any man can be. (I use the word as a short hand, but I think it's a valid as it ever was. The modern woman's apparent rejection of the word, I suspect, is more about individualism and the rejection of any labels rather than the rejection of the principals it stands for - which are basically Equal Rights for Women. I don't know any women and very few men who reject that.) I've tended to feel that women are somehow better than men and are treated unfairly almost as long as I can remember. I think it was a common view among women when I was a child that men are inconsiderate, coarse and self-centred and I seem to have absorbed that pretty much whole. Their bodies are smelly, hairy and vaguely repulsive, and their genitalia are ridiculous (chicken giblets spring readily to mind). They are prone to contempt, cynicism and derision, when faced with the unexpected and like to be in charge, even when they have no idea what is going on.
I am aware now that all this is a gross generalisation but it is, if you like, my base line - the idea that I first had about men when I was little. I can't say for sure where it came from but you will understand that when women's rights came to the fore in the 70s I was primed to be on the women's side. Years of experience of actual men and women have made my views more nuanced and rational but I am still on my guard around men in a way I never am around women. On the down side this has meant that I was completely unprepared for what complete and utter shit-heads some women can be. On the plus side, the fact that I genuinely enjoy the company of women means I've got a lot more sex than I might have.

Women today are in any case quite different to how they were then. Young women seem hugely more confident than they were and I'm glad to see that they seem far less bothered about keeping up appearances - in their behaviour at any rate. Women seem just generally more robust - a bit more coarse and self-centred than they were, which is not a bad thing at all. I never saw the appeal of the tearful martyred lady nor the fragile timid virgin. Sometimes maybe it seems to have gone too far but I would defend to the nth a woman's right to go too far, make a twat of herself and generally get it wrong. Some po-faced feminists criticise dramas that portray women as being ignorant or shallow or weak, as if every female character should be a role model, but I believe that, among the many rights that women should enjoy equally with men is the right to fuck up big time.

So for the sake of this essay I'm not going to talk about rape and genital mutilation, domestic abuse or discrimination in the work place. For me the arguments have been had and won and at least in the West it's basically a mopping-up operation - tracking down those who are still getting away with it, but who, like all criminals, will always to some extent be with us.
No, I want to talk about the relations between ordinary men and women in ordinary day to day situations - in the home, at work, out for the evening. There's abuse and harassment in all these places of course and I'd lump those in with the obviously wrong things above. My worry is with the strain of feminism that sees the everyday petty transgressions (the amount of house-work a man does for example, or a man eyeing-up a young woman in the street) as symptomatic and indicative of the greater wrongs listed above. I heard a woman the other day (on R4) say that the lewd comments from some builders as she walked by had to be the overt expression of a wider attitude. My assumption tends to be the opposite - that people who act out in antisocial or criminal ways tend to be the minority.
But in any case, even if all or most of us men are secretly having lascivious thoughts as we walk along the street, is that a bad thing? There is this word - 'objectification' that still springs up in discussion which seem to be practically synonymous with 'admiration' in this situation. That a woman is not (in this case) being admired for her brains, her ambition, her ideas or her talents, but instead for her appearance is seen as a bad thing. I would agree if that was all she was ever admired for, but I'm not at all convinced it is. In any case it shouldn't be assumed and it certainly shouldn't be condemned out of hand, especially when she's clearly gone to so much trouble to look like that.
But isn't that the issue, they say - that she's had to go to all that trouble? She's caught up in this cycle of objectification and insecurity, so in effect, she has no choice - she goes out of her way to look like that but resents the fact that it gets attention.

I'm not even slightly convinced by this. In the first place, my instinctive respect for women refuses to accept the idea that women are so easily manipulated. At some point there has to be the invocation of choice. At some level, women these days in The West choose to look like that. Their motives may be mixed and obscure but whose aren't? Unless they have a very oppressive partner, nobody has to look like that (and if they do they fall into the 'definitely wrong' categories above).
My second point would be that appearances are not superficial. The way we look - how we dress, how we walk, what we smell like, how we smile, the simple fact that we choose to take care of our appearance, or not, are all subtle signals and they tell others a heck of a lot about us. Some we can change for effect (clothes) and some are intrinsic to who we are (our basic body shape) but none of them are mere disposable decorations. They are as much who we are as the contents of our minds. That's not to say they always give a good impression.
My third point is that I think this might be just as true of men as with women. I don't mean this just in the obvious way - that men are now spending massively more than they used to on 'product', although that is interesting. I also don't mean that women also like to ogle a good looking young man, although they definitely do. I mean men have always been judged on appearances above all else and the pressure to look good is just as harsh, if not more so. This is a harder one to argue but bear with me.

I spent a large part of my teens and twenties feeling inadequate and undesirable, and I know I was far from alone in this. There was always that group of cool lads who just seemed to have 'it' somehow. It was not just that they knew how to dress (cleverly subverting the school uniform) but they knew how to grin and to slouch and to wise-crack. Some were into the right bands and others were popular because they were very sporty. Yet others had a menace that everyone could respect. Since school I've become aware that the most desirable men are the ones that are concerned about their 'image'. They take up dangerous or glamorous sports or are in a rock band or drink too much or take too many drugs and get into trouble on a Saturday night. Confidence is the thing - risk-taking, the ability to look assured or even cocky in the face of danger. Above all women like men to appear self-confident, a characteristic I totally lacked when I was a young man. When I look back at those blokes they had absolutely no reason to be so sure of themselves. They were no brighter than the rest of us, and in many cases far less good-looking. In some cases they were downright stupid, but they had attitude, and the girls fell for it every time. Those girls weren't interested in finding out what sort of person we really were. It was all a front. I was awkward and needy and tended to spend my time on 'hobbies' (ie things I was genuinely interested in and which really gave me something to think about) which, then as now, are fatal to attracting the opposite sex, but I was also kind, articulate, sensitive, and not at all bad looking, but they weren't interested in that. My 'image' was all wrong. I had no game. Almost always, the most desirable men (leaving aside for now the very rich) are not physicists or writers, statesmen or campaigners but actors, footballers and pop stars and there's nothing very profound about any of that. When I signed up for an internet dating website in my early 40s, looking for a woman closer to my own age, I found to my dismay that the deal breakers were very often height and income. It could be argued that both are a proxy for self-confidence but in any case neither is exactly deep and meaningful.

I suspect a lot of feminist-minded women will look at that list and argue that those qualities that men are judged on are nevertheless somehow more genuinely admirable than mere looks. I would agree that they are more challenging. If I could have made myself more desirable as a young man simply by going to Churchill Square and buying a new outfit I'd have been more than happy to do so. What it takes to look right as a young man though is far more demanding, and to some extent dangerous but it's not in any way more 'real'. It's still just a look. That women find these attributes somehow more genuinely desirable in fact, I think, says more about some unreconstructed sexism on their part - that what men do is somehow intrinsically better than what women do. This connects to the modern woman's desire to be able to compete with men at every level in business and government. Again I would defend a woman's right to aspire to do anything men do, even when what we do is frankly stupid and sometimes plain wrong.

But then another problem with this is to assume that we 'men' are all like that - that women should challenge us 'men' in the boardroom and the House of Commons as well as in the pub and the bedroom, as if we are all somehow unified in this brotherhood outside of which the women can only scheme and crane their necks. But as with those blokes on the builders' site, we are not all like that. I was not alone as a gormless teenager - we were all gangly and uncouth, spotty and somewhat malodorous. Most of us now observe the antics of the alpha males and either aspire hopelessly to be like them or dismiss them as arrogant bastards. Probably many women meet a disproportionate number of these men because they are the only ones with the nerve to approach them at the bar (which, girls, does take an amazing amount of nerve) and many women would openly admit a preference for the Bad Boy.
Most of us though, whether we like it or not, have more in common with you women than we would like to admit. It's not men against women - it's the rest of us against those self-important avaricious cock-sure tossers who want to take over everything and leave the rest of us feeling somehow inadequate, when in fact we are just getting on with life.

So welcome to our world girls. We all feel inadequate on some fairly spurious basis much of the time and especially when we're young. The fact is though that I know I am far from alone in finding skinny women a bit off-putting. We don't care how much you spent on cosmetics or how fashionable your frock is anything like as much as you do. This oppression, for once, is not our fault. This, I'm afraid is all yours, and at some point you will have to take some responsibility for your willingness to give in to the fashion designers and the PR men, whose only motivation, lets face it, is to sell stuff. You compare yourself with your so-called sisters, as we do with our so-called brothers, and we all find ourselves wanting.

If you want real emancipation - stop comparing yourselves with some ideal and start being who you are.
Or am I being very old-fashioned?