Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘diet

On Being a Looker

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Arguments over the size of models bore me. Art has never represented the real world accurately, even during the periods when all the artists spent their spare time in coffee shops discussing mimesis and realism. So surely it comes as no surprise that film stars are more beautiful than the average person, singers are better at dancing, models are skinnier. All that the debate over the skinniness of models tells me is that we have accepted the influence of the fashion industry on real people, and that weight is what we choose to measure.

I don’t read magazines. If I’m going to be sat in a waiting room I bring a book, not because I have a phobia of being confronted with a size zero model, but because I am uninterested in your opinion on the best mascara and I already know how to please my man in bed. Who does read them? The leading woman’s magazine, Glamour, has a readership of 579,761, less than one percent of the British public, hardly a great social force.

There was a time when I read women’s magazines avidly. As a teenager I devoured the make-up tips longing for the money to purchase the goods and the opportunities to wear them. I memorised how to be good in bed before I’d even been in bed with a boy. I read all the dieting tips and went through a brief phase of refusing to eat.

Reading magazines and refusing to eat were related, but not causally. We were on the verge of womanhood, but we didn’t know how to make the transition. We knew that there were rules, things you did and didn’t do, but no one would tell us what they were. Our mothers were either past it or standing in our way, because we knew that lipstick and miniskirts were part of the new code, and they wouldn’t let us out in them. We knew that the most popular girl was doing it best, but she was only one step ahead of the rest of us. So we bought Just Seventeen and More (which was raunchier in those days), paraded it through the school, read it and learned how to be women. Fortunately, as I got older I found other sources of information and other models of womanhood.

Magazines aren’t representative, they are aspirational. Their buyers don’t want a mirror, they want a construction manual with shiny pictures of the thing they are building. Selling instructions on how to be different is predicated on the individual not being good enough to start with. Exploiting insecurities is business.

Even if we do assume that we can destroy the primary aim of magazines and have them depict the real world, rather than an idealised one, which areas do we focus on to represent? I would go for race and gender, myself. But we could worry about the height of models, short people are scarce. As are Goths, hook noses and bitten fingernails. And you know what, you don’t see many people with a strong interest in woodwork in magazines nowadays. Lots of shoes and handbags, no woodwork.

Why don’t we worry about any of those things? Well, no one with an interest in woodwork has ever told me of suffering caused by their invisibility in magazines. Race and gender have serious, measurable implications in terms of racism and sexism which affect people’s lives. (Good article on racism in education this week). The lack of woodworkers has fewer repercussions.

And weight? Fat people suffer. People in the middle suffer, otherwise I’m sure that I would have continued munching without a thought throughout my teenage years. But I’m not sure that’s got much to do with magazines. I often suffer at the hands of people who have never looked at a women’s magazine in their lives.

I was out dancing last week. I was wearing a new dress for the second time, a dress chosen with exceeding care, analysed for breathability, washability and modesty. Not to put too fine a point on it, I sweat when I dance, and my clothes have to deal with it. Also, I don’t want to be shoving my cleavage into men’s faces, they might get the wrong idea. I wouldn’t have bought it if I thought it made me look ugly, but, frankly it was plain black dress. I was surprised when a man asked me “have you lost weight or is it the black?” which was, even on its own terms, an ambiguous compliment. I gave an honest answer of “I don’t know.” I hadn’t been trying to lose weight. He responded with an attempt at humour. He did a little impression of me flicking my hair and simpering “Oh, I don’t know.” All I could think was “what a dick.”

One man’s lack of social skills aside, I think it says something that people are so certain that telling a woman she appears thinner than the last time you saw her is a compliment that they imagine a positive response even when they don’t get one. Other people seem to be more aware of my fluctuations in weight than I am, primarily so that they can tell me I’m looking good when I get skinny. The only exceptions are my very closest friends, who, after a particularly stressful time which resulted in me dropping two dress sizes, told me that I looked like Sonia from ‘Crime and Punishment’. Thanks, girls!

Browsing on the subject today, I came across this article. A woman attempts to show the world how silly it is to be skinny by starving herself. As she lost weight, she says “It made me realise how many people comment on thinness all the time. As a society, we’re obsessed by it. You walk into a room, and your friends rush over to tell you how thin you are. […] I was constantly complimented on my weight loss, as if it was some sort of achievement.”

It’s absolutely true, and, as she observes, the approval can be a little addictive. I think the compliments are based in assumptions about what women want, rather than personal opinion, though. It is inconceivable that a woman wouldn’t want to lose weight, so it is a good, all-purpose compliment to tell her she has.

The problem with both Porter’s article and arguments for more representative models is that the hegemony of the beauty ideal remains intact. Even the focus on weight remains. It works on the idea that we all want to look like models, so they should make it a bit easier for the ordinary woman by making themselves a bit more like us. Frankly, they can look as good as they want, it’s their job, but it is not mine, so I will worry about other things.

If there is one thing my adventures in dating, in international travel and multiculturalism, and in the fetish community have taught me, it is that there are any number of ways of being beautiful. Since I am not an ornament in your home, I’m not your lover or your kinky play-partner, I don’t have to take account of your vision of beauty. I have no shortage of invitations to become any of those things. With that in mind, perhaps we could lay off holding every specimen of the human race to our personal standards. I usually fancy shortish, curvy girls with dark hair. When I meet such people, or even meet tall, skinny blondes, I usually refrain from vocally making a comparison to my ideal, mostly because they have absolutely no reason to care what I like. Next time I’m in company, it would be nice if others would do me the same courtesy. From a wolf-whistle to a compliment or an insult, it is all the same thing: my proximity to your ideal of beauty isn’t an achievement, it’s an accident, and it is really no business of mine.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 5, 2010 at 12:05 pm

I Think You’re Gorgeous

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We all have our naughty moments. We believe things wholeheartedly, but now and again we allow ourselves a moment of abandonment. For me, it is usually a little window in which I don’t try to be understanding. A few seconds in which I think that the author of this article should stop complaining and cease stuffing his face at MacDonald’s. A minute, while cornered by a woman telling me about her childhood trauma, when I believe that she should, at age sixty, deal with her issues in her own time. Then I feel bad, because it must be awful to be overweight in a society obsessed with slimness, and because I had a happy, shiny childhood, and still manage to bore people with my troubles. At other times, the slipups are entirely personal. I don’t worry so much about those. My inner feminist is coping quite well with the spanking (or would be, if I were getting any).

Last week, however, I discovered a prejudice I didn’t know I had. I was out dancing. As a spectacle, dance encourages you to look at other people’s bodies with admiration, attraction, envy, surprise or repulsion. Dancers don’t mind you staring. Some of them wear eye-catching spangly outfits. Some must consume a huge quantity of calories to do that much exercise and maintain that much weight. Now and again I endure stabs of envy, when, for example, a petite girl is picked up, swung through the air and returned to the ground. I’m five foot ten, no one is ever going to do that with me. Mostly, though, I spend my time wishing I was a better dancer, and owned a pair of sparkly dancing shoes, rather than considering waist to hip ratios.

A couple of nights ago, as I digging in myself for the courage to ask someone to dance, a beginner breezed up to the nearest man and swept him onto the floor. She was tall, she was blonde, and she had the body of a fashion model. “If I looked like that,” I thought, “I would have the confidence to ask men to dance, too.” I had conveniently forgotten my previous post on annoyance about people dancing with me because of my looks.

I didn’t stop there, though. My jealousy grew. “She looks like a boy, anyway, all lanky, with angles and hard edges. Straight men don’t want that. Real women have hips and breasts. I have damn fine breasts.”

With the exception of the fact that I have damn fine breasts, the above is codswallop. She was a real woman, evidenced by her existence. The definitions of femininity and feminine attractiveness are not immutable, they vary from culture to culture; no version of ‘woman’ is any more valid than another. Fortunately, while the fashion world, Hollywood and women’s magazines have a standardised version of beauty, real people are more idiosyncratic. Some would pass me over for a skinny, hipless blonde, and some would prefer a short, obese woman with full lips, or a woman with red hair, or tattoos, or the ability to play the clarinet. I think that’s great.

So why am I threatened by skinny blondes and not short, fat, redheaded clarinettists? Presumably because the skinny blondes are on the front of porn sites, film posters and music videos. Is it important? Well, yes, actually. Our cultural beliefs about beauty tend to reinforce inequalities of race, class and gender. Why did it used to be fashionable to be pale? Because only the wealthy could avoid working outside. Why is it now fashionable to be tanned? Because only the wealthy can afford foreign holidays. Why are we so obsessed by the blonde? Dare I say that it has something to do with the fact that most blondes are white?

Every time we find beauty and attractiveness where culture tells us it shouldn’t be, we challenge oppressive power structures just a little bit. Because I’m not one of the skinny blondes at the top of the artificial tree, that feels pretty good to me. But what if I was?

I’m no stranger to privilege. I went to a private school. I’m middle class, I’m white. I know that these things gave me advantages, but it still upsets me when people hold them against me. They were not choices I made, but facts of my life. You don’t have to tell me that I might not have got good grades if I’d attended the local comprehensive, but what do you want me to do? Hand my education back? I’ve rarely had to struggle against racism. Sorry.

Skinny blondes, with the exception of peroxide-abusing dieters, didn’t choose their genes. They might get advantages because they fit a mainstream model of beauty. They might get more of the disadvantages I’ve pointed out, in the form of constant sexual attention. The system’s a bad one, but they didn’t create it. So one of these days I’m going to do something really radical. I’m going to make a grand political statement, and date a skinny blonde.

Apply within.

Written by Not an Odalisque

March 13, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Whatever Happened to Class?

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Today is International Women’s Day. When I lived in China it was celebrated with a day off work, here in the UK it seems to be used as a vehicle for examining the progress of feminism in the national press. I think I preferred the Chinese version.

If you’re a Guardian reader (and what self-flagellating British liberal isn’t?) you’ll have noticed that every feminist issue recently has come with a quote or from Natasha Walters on the sorry state of feminism. She has a new book out, and, I suspect, a friend on the editorial board. Combine her oft-repeated argument that women are increasingly participating in their own objectification with the recent report on the sexualisation of children, though, and you would be forgiven for thinking half of the British population are disguising themselves as sex-dolls and hookers in order to tempt men to stuff five pound notes into their bras.

There has always been pressure on women to look good, but there has rarely been so much pressure on women to look like porn stars. Access to and use of pornography, strip clubs and prostitutes is now widespread. The number of men using prostitutes doubled in the 1990s ( the number of lap-dancing clubs has risen 1,150% since 1997 (–figures-lay-bare-life-modern-Britain.html). Broadband connections are pretty common, too; who doesn’t look at porn?

Men are paying for women’s bodies and it is very visible. When the bus stop is outside the strip club, you wait outside the strip club (bad planning, Liverpool City Council!). You can’t insulate yourself from the media. This week I’ve seen several hardcore pornographic pictures I didn’t want to see, through internet advertising. I’ve heard radio adverts in which breathy women seem to promise sex in return for scrap metal (that was quite odd). Even the photos in my cookery books seem to focus on the body of the author, rather than her baking.

This makes a lot of us feel insecure. There’s a little voice at the back of our minds saying that men want women who look like that, rather than like me. It’s not enough to make meringues, I have to find the opportunity to sensuously lick something gloopy off my finger while I do it. There will always be someone there to exploit that insecurity, because there’s money in it, so they try to sell you make-up, clothes, diet pills, breast implants and pussy dye (yes, I said pussy dye: There are two common responses: to try to look better, or to assert that looks don’t matter. Join them or beat them.

Enter feminism, which tries to offer ways of valuing women that aren’t about how desirable they are to men. In the earliest days Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about women’s education for that reason. Women fought to be able to go to work for that reason. We thought we’d mostly won. So when we see society pushing women back into the role of sex object, when we see Tesco selling pole dancing kits as children’s toys ( and stationers selling Playboy merchandise to little girls (, feminists get angry. But who should we be angry with?

We should ask ourselves why feminist ideas on how to value women aren’t accepted, while sexual objectification is. Because it really is. Teenagers want to be glamour models, they cite Katie Price as a role model ( . There’s something rather patronising about the way feminists wring their hands and blame culture for brainwashing children. Could it possibly be that they just don’t like our version of who they should be?

This issue crystallised for me when I came across this.


It can be seen as a great feminist response to a song in which a woman claims value only in terms of men’s desire, suggesting an empowering alternative in which we value women’s brains. Sounds great. But what if you can’t get an A in it?

Some girls just aren’t that brainy. They aren’t going to become lawyers or doctors, and it’s not because they are disadvantaged, or lack encouragement. We ask that only the best pursue those careers. Most women aren’t the best. Most men aren’t, either. What does feminism have to offer them?

Feminism is a mostly middle-class movement. It campaigns on middle class issues. Working class women did not fight to be allowed to work, they had always worked, out of economic necessity rather than a desire for fulfilment and independence. Today the work ethic, education and career success are part of middle class values. They also seem to be feminist values. We are proud that women are achieving the positions middle class men covet. To do that you should work hard, get a good education and an important job. The problem is that a good education is not available to a lot of working class girls. Even in my position as middle-class, with my private schooling and postgraduate education, I can’t claim that my career has much sparkle. What if I had been to a school with a 50% GCSE pass rate? What if I didn’t have any role models who worked? What if I just saw through the rhetoric which told me I had to combine career-woman, domestic goddess and sex kitten, when I could choose just one?

I don’t have an alternative system to propose. I judge women (indeed, everyone) on a diverse range of factors, many of them idiosyncratic, like whether they agree with my reading of Nietzsche and if they share my sense of humour. It would be easy to say that everyone is special and has their own unique contribution to make to the world, but that rather misses the point. It is an idea which loses its currency when you’re sat next to a bore at dinner.

What I do know is that what we are doing isn’t working. Feminism isn’t speaking to most women. Why don’t we offer them something different?

Written by Not an Odalisque

March 8, 2010 at 11:47 pm

New Year’s Resolutions

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Other people’s New Years resolutions are inherently boring. My friends are going to exercise, lose weight, eat better, work shorter hours and achieve more at work. None of them is quite sure how. We all know that thousands of gym memberships will be taken out this January by those my father and his girlfriend snidely call “the minkies”, and that those same minkies will be notably absent from gyms in July. I can’t help thinking that if you’ve munched your way through Christmas, stuffing your bloated body with roast meats, mince pies, cakes and chocolates, your virtuous January resolve is not built upon the sure foundations of health and discipline so much as the sand of guilt and horror at the grotesque wobble of your thighs. If you want a supermodel figure, why did you indulge yourself through December, making the task in January so much more difficult?

That said, I’m doing it, too. My resolutions for this year:

To get back down to a size ten.

Not to buy anything that I could make for myself within a sensible timeframe.

To sleep with interesting, good looking people.

To write.

One of my friends responded “it’s meant to be a resolution, not a life plan” but it is no less achievable, I think, than many lists. If it works, I will be writing about being beautiful, resourceful and having great sex. Don’t you hate me already?

Written by Not an Odalisque

January 3, 2010 at 8:48 pm