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.
Now there is the retro craze that newspapers have embraced in the last few years for promoting any study, no matter how inaccurate, that proves that we lovely, cutesy women like pink because we're genetically programmed to pick berries, talk for hours and hours every day, can't park, can't do maths, can't do anything really except look after babies, cook and clean. Many of these studies have been disputed by experts, but "girls will be girls, and boys will be boys" makes an entertaining headline, so we're now using biology to underpin many of the inequalities still present in our society. The argument becomes: "Sorry, no point in trying to change it, it's in the genes." Walter's new feminism is an attack on this new fatalism.
Living Dolls is hard for me to read without scepticism. I'm a 23-year-old who grew up in Southend surrounded by glamour model hopefuls and who went out scantily-clad and pole-danced with the best of them at Mayhem (not as an employee, mind you). I know that this doesn't therefore mean that I don't have a brain, or a future, or any morals.
Actually, not every girl wants to be, or look like, Cheryl Cole or Jordan, and not every guy finds the plastic look the height of sexiness. Women have sold their bodies forever and the WAG/glamour model is just its new guise and the temptation to move into this industry is often more of a symptom of our get-rich-quick-and-become-the-next-Z-list-celebrity culture than of hypersexuality. And although Walter might find it odd, some women do find a WAG's life more appealing than that of a Guardian journalist.
Unfortunately, there is a slight problem. People often make the mistake when thinking about this subject, as I did, of believing that choosing to be a glamour model, or a lap dancer, or even a prostitute is fine because it is exactly that — a personal choice, and one that we don't have the right to question in modern life. However, it cannot only be a matter of choice when women are still unequal in so many important areas of life: in 2007, women made up only 11 per cent of directors of the FTSE 100 companies; 14 per cent of editors of national newspapers; and fewer than 20 per cent of MPs. In 2007-2008, the pay gap between women and men actually widened; and women working full-time do an average of 23 hours of unpaid domestic work each week compared to eight hours for men. This isn't a matter of choice, it's a matter of having fewer opportunities.
Walter is right to argue that we need to fix these inequalities before we can claim that women sell their sexual allure just because they feel like it and because it's fun. Maybe the most effective way to do this is to attack the fatalistic articles in magazines and newspapers that argue that women are programmed to fail in other jobs, to attack a culture which ignores the omnipresence of internet pornography because it's already widespread, and to challenge fashionable views that argue that pole dancing, glamour modelling and high-class prostitution are largely fabulous and pain-free. When we've overcome these barriers, then we can strip and seduce with gay abandon.