Barbie: Every girl's dream body?
In the 1970s, the second feminist wave encouraged women to, among other things, rediscover their libido, embrace sexual freedom and welcome a guilt- and contempt-free promiscuity. These were vital tools in the fight for empowerment against men who hated us and who had conditioned us to hate ourselves.
And if these were the tools needed, then we've certainly used them. We can wear anything we like-short or tight, a belt instead of a skirt, a belt instead of a top if you're Jodie Marsh. We can sleep with whomever we like without having to marry them or have their babies. We can even sleep with them, charge them excessive fees, write a book about it, and become the next high-class, female temptress that every Sunday newspaper wants to interview. But has this empowered us or have we been enslaved by our own sexual allure?
In Living Dolls, Natasha Walter argues the latter. In our rush to gain sexual liberation we have sunk even further into sexual objectification, as the aims of young girls have slowly come to centre on living the life of a WAG, pop star or glamour model. And the definition of female sexual allure is narrow: you need Barbie doll proportions (thin, yet miraculously busty), immaculately groomed hair and nails, puffed lips, tanned skin and whitened teeth. As Walter says, you can look from almost-plastic and über-groomed Cheryl Cole to her Girls Aloud doll and it's hard to tell the difference.
Although being Belle de Jour seems to be every young, struggling career woman's secret fantasy, the reality should put anyone off, no matter how large their student loan debt: the violence, the addiction and the abuse involved prove that few women gain real empowerment when selling their bodies. Even "Miss S", author of Confessions of a Working Girl — a book marketed as a light-hearted account of prostitution, with a pretty pink cover showing a young woman in sexy underwear — provides many physically sickening descriptions of sexual violence that she experienced on the job. Female role-models such as the Sugababes and Kate Moss, may find pole-dancing "fabulous and sexy" but in most lap-dancing clubs women are encouraged to let men touch them for money — not so fabulous. When Walter goes to Mayhem nightclub in Southend, she is shocked by the number of glamour model hopefuls who strip on a bed in the middle of the club, and saddened by the feelings of degradation they express afterwards. Even in their own bedrooms, her interviewees seem to have mistaken empowerment for something else — an emotional detachment from sex in order to objectify men in the way that women have long been treated as objects, but at the expense of real engagement. This comes at a time of "hypersexualisation", according to Walter. She links this to the rise of internet pornography — the truly classless hobby which allows people to look at all types of dirty things with a click of the mouse. It is porn, and its general theme of the degradation of women, which has warped men's views of sex.
We women are now expected to be absolutely cool with our male partners going for a "cheeky" birthday/stag-do lapdance, because it's "just for the craic" (no pun intended). There are even "female chauvinist pigs", as Ariel Levy termed them, who take pride in joining their men at a club or taking business clients to lap-dancing venues.