Not an Odalisque

Posts Tagged ‘femininity

If You Read This, You’ll Discover I’m A Monster

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I think that if you met me you would believe that I’m a nice girl. Middle class. Rather shy. Prone to thinking that everyone has read Byron and agrees on the importance of soup spoons. On the first day of my course nice women mothered me and bought me bakewell tart. That’s the girl they bought it for.

Now and again other parts slip out. I forget that in a discussion about pole dancing you shouldn’t admit that you’ve actually seen any, and especially shouldn’t admit that you were in a lesbian bar in Soho at the time. I forget that reading ‘120 Days of Sodom’ on the train will get me funny looks. Mostly, I forget that there are a number of topics you’re meant to come at sideways, and shock people with frankness where they expected allusion.

In everyday life, it isn’t too difficult to keep parts of myself separate. I remember to be nice to my granny when she asks why I haven’t got a nice boy, and don’t need to additionally remind myself not to tell her I don’t want a nice boy, but a big, nasty man who’ll do unspeakable things to me. I don’t need to talk about Kristeva’s theory of abjection when I call Estates to report a blocked toilet. I remember who I’m speaking to, and everything flows from there.

That isn’t the case with writing. When you write something down, anyone can read it, but you’ll never write that sex scene with your granny sitting on your shoulder. In fact, you’ll never write anything if you’re trying to please everyone, and everyone, you see, is your potential audience. Will Milly from the chip shop appreciate that parody of the Commedia dell’arte? I doubt it. Your old tutor, though, author of numerous books on the subject, will probably laugh at your childish attempts. It’s best to put them all out of your mind.

So I conjure an ideal reader. You, dearest, are a reader of Byron, an owner of soup spoons (possibly also a supplier, have you any spare?) and a lover of bakewell tart. You aren’t scandalised by pole dancing or kink, and you’ve read at least the first half of ‘The Powers of Horror’, you’ve met Columbine and Harlequin. You’re perfect, and you’ll reinvent yourself tomorrow when I begin another piece.

If you’re reading this and you don’t fit that description, I consider that to be your problem. There are people whose opinions matter to me very deeply, but all of them have got better things to do than read my ramblings. The rest of you will just have to take me as I am.

If only it were always that way. I’m taking a Creative Writing course. Now and again I have to sit in a room with your readers. Talk to them, lunch with them, see them drink soup from polystyrene cups. How are they going to react if my stories aren’t nice?

I’m not nice. I’m rather monstrous. If I’m to render an honest account of my experience (and it’s the only experience I have to offer) then that monstrosity is going to come out one way or another. I can’t see a way around that. I’ve found myself to be really very bad at writing poems about flowers.

You might say (although you won’t, if you’re my ideal reader) that I should try harder on the flower poems. My thinking is this: Women spend an awful lot of their time pretending not to be the monsters they are (no doubt men do, too); we pluck and shave, bite our tongues and paint our faces, and keep quiet about desire or periods or hating having to do the washing up. It hasn’t done us very much good. It’s one of the reasons we’re still stuck not only with the image of women as beautiful, good and pure, but also with having to do the dishes. To fall in with society’s expectations is to deny what we are, and, in some sense, to tell a lie. The right to write about our whole selves has been fought for in the courts and won. That means that I get the chance to read ‘Baise-Moi’ and think “fuck, yeah!”

The best story I’ve written recently includes a rape. It includes the word “purpling”. It is filled with sticky sexual anecdotes which may not be true to the letter, but are true to the spirit, of things that happened to me. I want to hand it in, but I’m gripped by this anxiety: what will people think of me?

Did Nabokov worry that people would think he was a paedophile? Shakespeare a poisoner? Dostoevsky a thief? Tolstoy an adulterer? I don’t know. It seems quite likely that, soon, all the people on my course will think I’m a weirdo. Perhaps then, in search of acceptance, I’ll begin to value you, my darling, perfect, reader.

Written by Not an Odalisque

September 28, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Princesses Don’t Mow Lawns

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I cried today because I couldn’t start the lawnmower. I don’t know what I did wrong. I put the slidy thing in the right position, beside the lightning bolt, I held down the lever on the handle and I pulled the string many, many times. I discovered on the first pull that the handle on the string hurts my fingers, so I got out a cloth and used it for cushioning. Then I pulled and pulled and pulled. I had three goes today, and during the last one I pulled that string twenty-one times. I think I’ve also pulled a muscle in my right side. The grass isn’t any shorter, though.

It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m twenty-six, I’ve travelled the world, lived alone, got an MA and learned to make passable jams and dresses. I’m a responsible adult. Nevertheless, I can’t mow the lawn.

I’m slightly confused. I recognise I’m not strong or mechanically minded. In fact, when I was fourteen my Design and Technology teacher greeted my mother at parents’ evening with a stricken face and the words, “she’s not thinking of doing DT for GCSE, is she?!” I wonder, though, what proportion of the population is strong and mechanically minded. I don’t have bulging muscles, but I am young and fit. How do older people cut their lawns? I know plenty of middle aged, divorced women who almost wobble when you look at them. Do they live with meadows out the back?

The uncut lawn isn’t the end of the world. At some point my father will come home and do it himself. He’ll be slightly frustrated because he’d asked me to do it, and perhaps he’ll even suspect that I’m feigning weakness to get out of the chore. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that his glamorous girlfriend is a real, honest to god, Independent Woman. When a lass has her own scaffolding, you can pretty much guarantee that she would laugh in the face of lawnmowers. I know that some women escape girly uselessness, I just can’t work out how to do it myself.

I hate it when the misogynists assume that I can’t do things for myself. Being a woman doesn’t mean that I’m weak. It can be even worse, though, when the feminists assume that I’m strong. I’m not. Admitting that I can’t start the lawnmower, or that I struggle to open the garage door, makes me feel like I’m not a proper feminist. I’m not strong enough to be one.

I mentioned in a previous post that I lost my keys a couple of weeks ago, and found myself stranded twenty miles from my locked house. The keys turned up in someone else’s handbag. They had been discovered that very night, as I was searching the dance hall for them. The owner of the handbag wanted to drive back and give them to me. I think a phone call would have done the trick, myself. She did neither, though, because her friend told her, “she’s a strong, independent woman, she’ll be fine.”

I was fine, not because I was strong and independent, but because I had help. I’m not quite sure what “strong” and “independent” meant, in the context, unless they implied “wealthy enough to pay for a hotel and a taxi.” I don’t know when proving we weren’t princesses waiting in towers for knights in shining armour became being totally unreliant on anyone other than ourselves.

Feminists, please give over. Congratulations if you have superpowers, I’m afraid I don’t. All of us, men and women, need help sometimes. Occasionally we even have to be rescued. For now, though, all I want is for someone to show me how to start the lawnmower.

Written by Not an Odalisque

August 16, 2010 at 10:09 pm

The Very Girly Dress

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I own a very girly dress. It’s pink and it’s floral. It sports bows and butterflies. It’s the sort of dress which you only buy because your inner five year old is going to throw a tantrum in the middle of the shop if you don’t let her have it. I bought it because it was the perfect dancing dress. By which I mean not that it had a swirly skirt, but that it was great for sweating in: no sleeves, breathable, washable. I’m a practical woman at heart. All the same, I had an indecisive moment. I stood in the changing room and asked, “Could you take me seriously in this dress?”

“Perhaps,” the assistant replied, “if you tried for a really serious expression.”

I bought it anyway.

Last night I put it on, stood in front of a mirror and thought to myself, “the tongue piercing really doesn’t go.” Usually I think that it provides a subtle, slightly surprising, edge to my image. With the pink dress, wasn’t provocative, it was downright unsettling. Little girly really doesn’t go with something that makes you think of blow jobs.

I sallied out to go dancing. Three compliments later I was feeling good about my dress. Then my father told me, “Two people have said to me tonight, ‘When she first started dancing, she always wore black. Now she looks so pretty and feminine.’” Skipping over the change of seasons, the loss of a dress size and the necessity for investment in clothes suitable for dancing, this seems a strange sort of comment. I’m being praised for becoming more feminine. Being feminine is a good thing. Why? Is it intrinsically good, or do good things come of it?

Nothing very good came of it last night. I didn’t notice any men queuing up to dance with me. No one gallantly fetched me water or chivalrously carried my shoes to the car. One, tiny interaction made me realise the assumptions that people made, though.

I stopped to buy beer. I do so about once a fortnight. Same place, same product, same transaction. This time: different dress. As I approach the counter a lad comments “I wouldn’t have you down for a Fosters drinker.” I wouldn’t, either, three of the four cans were for my father, but then this petrol station doesn’t stock my preferred drink, a good pale ale, which I told him. He was very surprised that I even knew what a pale ale was. Women in girly dresses, it seems, aren’t meant to know their beers. Nevertheless, I went to pay.

I was IDed. I’m twenty-six. I’m five foot ten. I looked like I was twenty by the time I was fourteen. No one ever IDs me. Until I put on the pink dress. To make up for it, though, the cashier flirted his little heart out and made funny jokes about being a potential stalker. He gave me a voucher I hadn’t earned and a cheery wave as I drove away.

It’s only one evening. A couple of tiny incidents. Definitely not a representative sample of society. But I’m left with these two things: praise for looking more girly, and the results of looking more girly, including assumptions of youth, ignorance, willingness to flirt and desire for gifts.

I know that I make a choice when I get dressed about the assumptions I invite. I know that if I wanted to be taken seriously I could probably manage it with a sharp, black suit. What worries me is the pressure to look girly, and thus to choose the assumptions I experienced last night. Women may seem to have a range of available dress codes, but you try going out looking butch and see how much trouble you get for not conforming in comparison to the advantages (assumptions about your sexuality may be problematic for you, too, but since I’m basing my knowledge of this on my ex-girlfriend I don’t know how that one will affect you). I will never know how much the way I dress everyday affects how people treat me, to find out would require replacing my wardrobe overnight. It must be said that this would hardly be an issue if I were a man.

I’m not going to give up my girly dress, although I might get a pink sparkly tongue stud to complete the look.* I think the answer is going to be in balance. My next purchase will have to be something so different from the very girly dress that it throws the whole identity of the wearer into doubt. I think I’ve found it. How about a pretty halter dress on which the cherries, on closer inspection, turn out to be bright, red skulls?

*I’m not really going to do that, it would be unspeakably vulgar.

Written by Not an Odalisque

July 4, 2010 at 5:40 pm

A Feminist Domestic Goddess?

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The last few days of my life have been unrelentingly domestic. Nine guests were staying at my house for a friend’s hen party, so I cleaned the house from top to bottom, kneaded brioche, made beds and counted towels. They’ve gone now, leaving me with a big pile of laundry and instructions to get on with decorating the wedding cake.

I like to think of myself as a feminist, but on days like this I don’t look much like one. Other indicators include my frilly pink apron, hand knitted jumpers and home-made handbags. I buy pink patterned cupcake cases and boil my own strawberry jam. Last week I made my own butter. Yesterday I spent hours sewing half a dress.

Can I be a feminist and still impersonate a 1950s housewife? I’m not sure. The obvious recourse is to consent. Unlike women of the past, my generation has the freedom to do as we please, I’m told, so whatever course we take results from an “empowered choice.” I think that argument is insulting. What were women before the sexual revolution? Mindless automatons? Do we make our choices free of any constraint today? Of course not. We live in a culture and it can be very difficult to defy gendered expectations, as I can verify after getting into a cold sweat about revealing my unshaven legs. Seventy percent of women won’t leave the house without make up. That isn’t free choice, that’s fear. Conforming to a gender role can’t be excused with the word empowerment, and the best way I can describe the impulse to do so is “Stockholm Syndrome.”

That said, there is a key difference between the apron I wear and the one my grandmother did. Hers was more practical and donned earlier in the morning. I doubt she had “Riots not diets” cross-stitched onto one of the pockets. My apron, you see, is singularly unsuited to actual cooking. It covers little of my body and can’t be washed at high temperatures, so I have to be careful not to get it too dirty. But that’s ok because keeping flour off me is a secondary role; I’m not sure whether its primary role is prettiness or to make an ironic comment on aprons.

An apron you can’t get dirty. A signifier of feminine domestic servitude which incites riots. This is a garment which calls itself into question. Furthermore, with its pink cotton and black lace combination, it invokes all sorts of naughty garments you don’t normally wear in the kitchen (unless you have a sturdy work surface), and that brings together two feminine roles to compare and contrast. In other words, my apron is subversive, it reveals the inherent absurdity of the feminine roles by overemphasising them and recombining them in new ways. So, surely, I can remain a feminist by being kitsch in the kitchen.

Well, that’s what I thought. The idea is to play with gender roles, in the knowledge that I can’t fully escape them, I can have a bit of ironic fun. Not everyone recognises what I’m doing, but I don’t intend on worrying about that. A lot of people have no idea what I’m on about even when I put it into words.

As time goes by, though, I begin to question it. That began when I discovered Cath Kidston. She’s the one doing all the chintz and paisley patterned bags women started carrying lately, in pink and pastel shades. Her shops are like temples to a bygone era. She sells fabric and sewing patterns, but in case you can’t be bothered to sew she also sells ready-made items. Her first product was a patterned ironing board cover, but the home wares have expanded to include such items as egg cosies and floral patterned radios. You know, the necessities.

Don’t get me wrong, this is my kind of shop, but it did get me thinking. The radio will set you back £200, the egg cosies are £5 each. Like my apron, they represent domesticity rather than really engage with it. After all, if you can afford £38 for the sewing basket you’re probably not making your own dresses to avoid Primark’s steep prices, and the person who pays £5 for a scrubbing brush can probably also afford a dishwasher.

All this is fine, after all people spend their money on far sillier things than decorative scrubbing brushes, but I do think it interesting that the lifestyle my grandmothers were desperate to escape, one of cooking, cleaning, sewing and washing, has been recast as a product they could never have afforded. Playing is fine, and fresh brioche for breakfast is really very nice, but where is the impulse coming from?

I’m inclined to blame Nigella. She made domesticity unspeakably sexy, pulling off an inspired fusion of mother and whore with every lick of her chocolate covered fingers. I think she’s great. But not remotely feminist. I suspect that, no matter how much quality time I spend with my Kenwood Chef, I’m never going to have the sexual appeal of Nigella Lawson. I may learn to make very good cakes, but at the end of that, I have cake, not sex. That is, to be fair, a very good consolation.

If some of Nigella’s appeal lies in motherhood, the reason I participate in the cult of domesticity must, surely, lead back to my own mother. The mother who made my third birthday cake in the shape of my teddy bear, to my great delight. The mother who sewed me a princess dress from pure gold fabric, on the machine I use today. Putting on my pink apron, am I trying to be the woman I remember, nostalgically, from the sunny days of my childhood?

If I am, I’m doing it wrong. You see, the last time my mother used the sewing machine was when I was five. My father tells me that my third birthday cake looked perfect, but was almost inedible. I don’t remember her making another cake after that. She bought them from the shop.

In one conversation with my father, the world came crashing down. I’d always assumed that my mother had the ability to bake and sew, to help me make Easter gardens and Nativity Play costumes, but had been too busy, delegating to my father, to sweatshops and bakeries, out of necessity. It turns out that I was wrong. The only thing worse than my mother’s attempts with the sewing machine, apparently, were my mother’s attempts in the kitchen. On the other hand, she was rather good at public sector finance.

So who am I trying to be? The mother who never existed? A pale shadow of Nigella Lawson? Am I trapped in a mode of patriarchy I didn’t even know was there? Or am I truly using the freedoms second wave feminists fought for? I’ll have plenty of time to think about it this afternoon as I wash sheets and make rhubarb jam.

Written by Not an Odalisque

June 16, 2010 at 10:49 am

Pole Dancing for the Very First Time

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I’m sat on a train opposite a nun. Not one of those wishy-washy nuns who wear ordinary clothes and do voluntary work, but a real, honest to God nun with a black and white wimple, a brown habit and a bit of knotted rope hanging from her waist, which, combined with the windbreaker, makes her look like a nun ready for the high seas. She’s just crossed herself, opened a leather-bound Bible and settled in for the journey, so I thought this would be a good time for me to talk about pole dancing. To you, not to her, because I don’t want to cause a serious incident on the East Coast Mainline.

Last week I had my first pole dancing class. If you have been reading this blog, you will know that until recently I had attributed my dislike of pole dancing and associated activities (lap dancing, over-zealous waxing, etc) to feminist principles, considering that it reduces women to sexual objects, and not very interesting sexual objects at that. Then I got to thinking that, since I enthusiastically support burlesque, which is, ultimately, stripping out of old-fashioned outfits to the music of yesteryear, I am being inconsistent, if not hypocritical. If I’m going to reject something on aesthetic grounds, I should have some experience of it. Standing at the back of a room in a Soho lesbian bar, glimpsing the odd elbow through gaps in the crowd as two women performed on stage probably isn’t enough. So, I decided, I would experience pole dancing for myself. I’ll be the first to know if I feel degraded.

The class I chose was on a Sunday evening. I don’t know what the nun would say about pole dancing on the Sabbath, I’d better not ask. I sent off an email to book a place, and received a confirmation entirely in text speak. My worst prejudices were conformed; there was a lot of lolling. Either she was an hysterically giggly woman, or her relationship with the English language was verging on abusive.

Nevertheless, I turned up at the village hall, ready to take pole dancing for a spin. We were herded into a room with two poles, and everyone wriggled out of their outer layers. Suddenly I was the only fully clothed woman in the room, self conscious in my stretchy trousers and vest top as others flaunted flesh beneath their hot pants.

I don’t want to step on anyone’s dreams, but it has to be admitted that certain items of clothing look much better on some body types than others. I’m not bitter about this because it works both ways. Corset on a skinny girl: What’s the point? Corset on me? If you’re lucky, one day I’ll show you pictures. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever go for a latex cat suit, I don’t own a pair of skinny jeans, and you’d have to pay me to get into that nun’s habit. There are those who disagree with me. This girl is proud of her skinny jeans, and good luck to her. It is a personal opinion, and one which I would not visit on anybody else, that hot pants look best on the slender. A couple of years ago, say, at the end of my last cycling holiday, I could have pulled them off. Currently, I think it would be best to reserve the sight of my upper thighs for those who already know and like me.

I didn’t have time to give other women’s thighs much thought, though, because we were beginning with some aerobics and stretches to warm up. This is when my second bout of body-consciousness kicked in, as we were invited to circle our arms like energetic windmills, giving me the opportunity to wow the crowd with repeated glimpses of my under-arm hair. As I’ve written before, I refuse to believe that hair, on women, is automatically disgusting. In fact, only yesterday I was chatted up by a man who specifically asked if I shaved and noticeably redoubled his efforts at seduction when I said I didn’t (he also said he’d like to watch me pee, however, so I’m not sure he’s a representative sample). In the context of the pole dancing class, though, I was troubled. If any of the women were challenging beauty norms, they were doing it very subtly. Most of them were wearing make-up. Two of them sported genetically unlikely combinations of blonde hair and tanned skin. Nails were painted and in some cases artificially extended with acrylic tips. Hair was straightened, skin buffed.

I flailed my arms around a few times, then, in my discomfort, managed to draw even more attention to myself by accidentally whacking someone stood nearby. Not the best beginning.

We divided into two groups, five people to a pole. I found myself with four women, including the two with the anomalous colouring. I would guess that all of them were younger than me. My sense of being huge, grotesque, even, persisted. Everything about these girls, from their boyish hips to their pink iPods, seemed designed to minimise their presence. “Why did you decide to join?” asked the girl next to me. I summarised the wilfulness of my main character and my fear that I disguise prejudice as feminism, then asked, “why did you start?” “I just thought it would be a laugh,” she replied.

The lesson began. The tutor demonstrated a move and we attempted to imitate her in turn. The other four, being more seasoned pole dancers, did a much more impressive job than me. They managed recognisable versions, at least. I, on the other hand, spent a few seconds dangling from the pole, legs dangling redundantly, before my hands slipped down and my feet met the laminate. I did it again, and again, and again. Each time I slunk away to the back of the queue, cursing my height, my weight, my lack of pneumatised bones, all of which made lifting my body difficult. “Very good,” the teacher opined a few times, rather unconvincingly. “It really wasn’t!” I eventually retorted. “My first lesson,” she replied, “I couldn’t even get my feet off the ground.” I felt a bit better after that.

Now and again we were distracted by a particularly impressive move being executed by a member of the more advanced group on the other pole. For the most part, though, I fell into the rhythm of watch, queue, dangle, and queue again. As the others span and swung, made mistakes, gained bruises, complimented, encouraged and ribbed one another, something strange happened. I don’t know whether it was the cheesy music playing in the background (which seemed to have no influence on the rhythm of the dancing) or the consistent good humour of my group, but somehow the lesson became fun.

I can understand why women pole dance. I can understand that the approval of men is an attractive factor. Merely mentioning that I was going to write this post, while queuing outside a television studio on Upper Ground, caused a middle aged man to turn from his wife and say to me “pole dancing? I’m listening now!” I also understand that there are other factors. I’m going to go back, and my primary reason is a hatred of failure. I want to know that I have the strength, skill and ability to perform moves which the weaker-looking women managed with ease.

Can pole dancing be feminist? I’m still undecided. The class did not have the seedy tone which I had associated with pole dancing due to its association with strip clubs. Even as we ground against the pole, the atmosphere entirely lacked sexual charge. The naturalisation of artificial gender roles was very noticeable, from artificial nails to cutesy pink accessories, but it seems more likely that women who buy pink iPods take up pole dancing than that pole dancing encourages the purchase of pink iPods. The forces which shape feminine identity are a big tangle, and I don’t think pole dancing is completely blameless. When I’ve unknotted it somewhat, I’ll let you know.

Written by Not an Odalisque

May 10, 2010 at 11:21 pm

Primark, Padding, Porn and Pumpkins

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This week another story about the sexualisation of children hit; Primark has been selling padded bikinis for seven year olds. These outrages come around every now and again. Previously, Tesco gave us the pole dancing kit for children to “release the sex kitten inside,” and even now, shops help little girls store their phallic signifiers in Playboy pencil cases. This week, a Guardian researcher dug up a “Future WAG” T shirt for three year olds and some high heeled shoes in small sizes.

My main thought after finishing the article about the bikinis was not “save our kids from paedo Primark!” but, “how do you make a bikini for £4?” Is there some poor child making these in a Bangladeshi sweatshop? It seems unlikely that anyone is being paid a fair wage. None of that is pertinent, however.

I’m often shocked by what kids wear. I’m shocked by what a lot of adults wear, too. Perhaps I’m just easily shocked. Children in heels and make-up, children in bikinis and push up bras, trouble me. They worry me in the same way that little boys playing with toy guns do. We are teaching children their role and giving them little chance to escape it. But I really don’t think that we can blame Primark.

I don’t like big multinationals. I knit my own jumpers and I think tofu is delicious. When I think of Primark I think of slave labour, environmentally destructive cotton growing and transportation, a wasteful culture in which clothes are considered disposable, and ugly, scratchy, garments, cheaply made out of synthetic fabric. I’m a snob. I am, however, a snob whose father works for a multinational. While the activists rail, I hear from the other side, too. It’s surprising how often the other side is rather reasonable. “How can you still be selling baby milk in X, after all the harm you did there?” I ask. “It was designed to save children whose mothers don’t produce milk. You think we should let them die?” he answers. More recently “Why are all your ready meals full of fat, salt and sugar?” “ Because when we stopped putting them in, people stopped buying them.” Oh. Good point.

Culture is powerful and children are infinitely suggestible. However, Primark wouldn’t be stocking padded bikinis for children if no one wanted to buy them, or, at least, they wouldn’t be stocking them for very long. The grownups are spending the money. The grownups are in moral paroxysms about the products. The fuss is getting so great, though, that I can’t help thinking that there is more to it than worries over the failure of feminism to release women from objectification. I’ve seen the handful of people who turn out for Object’s rallies. Women’s objectification doesn’t seem to upset more than a few feminists, who nonetheless shave their legs because it isn’t socially acceptable not to. So why the fuss when it comes to children?

I think that the language of the article in the Sun gives a valuable clue. With accusations that Primark’s bikini encourages paedophilia as “little girls wearing them would be sexualised and made attractive to predatory perverts,” and the coining of the term “paedophile pound” it invokes the threatening figure of the sexual predator. There are two objects of incontrovertible hate in our society: Nazis and paedophiles. They are the big bad wolves of our culture. The fact that most children suffer at the hands of family members doesn’t influence our image of the paedophile, lurking behind the bushes to drag away little girls for rape and murder. The paedophile has to be absolutely, uncontrovertibly other. He cannot be like us, he is not one of us. His life can’t even be allowed to resemble us. Why? Because we don’t want to admit the truth, and if we saw our similarities we would have to. This is the truth: we fancy children.

There, I’ve said it. I hope you’re shocked. Even if you are revolted and angry, stay with me for a moment to examine the evidence.

I started with the Sun, hoping to be able to make a point about the fact that they like to publish pictures of young women, as if it were impossible to be attractive over the age of thirty. But what I found was an article about how a twenty-seven year old celebrity is a “cougar”, because she finds a teenage boy attractive:

“She said: “I love Justin. I think he’s gorgeous.

“It’s kind of that you feel wrong for fancying him. I’m 27. His songs are amazing. I’d be a cougar for him. But it is wrong,”

Comedienne Shappi Khorsandi, – also on Monday’s BBC1 show – joked that men must have felt the same about fancying Billie when she was a teen pop star at just 15.”

Do you think that men felt uncomfortable about fancying Billie Piper? I don’t. Do you think that we’d feel the need to come up with a special name for a man who fancies younger women? No, I think that “heterosexual man” pretty much covers that base.

Our society is obsessed with youth. We sell it in bottles and surgical treatments, and we ogle it everywhere. Female TV presenters are sacked when they get to a certain age, because their function is primarily sexual and their sexual value has a sell-by date. Why do you think that the American high-school film has become a hugely popular genre? Could it possibly be because we get to ogle teenage girls for an hour and a half? Many of the beauty regimes we grown women follow to make ourselves attractive to men also make us resemble children. Why do porn stars shave off all, or almost all, of their pubic hair, in addition to the rest of their body hair? Are the rest of us expected to do that, too?

Dan and Dan sum up the situation excellently with “Bring back capital punishment for paedophiles; Photo feature on schoolgirl skirt styles.” I think that pornography holds the key to the issue of our obsession with paedophilia. Pornography is fantasy, a repository for desires we don’t admit to. It also influences desire, especially now that it is universally accessible—in fact unavoidable—online.

A couple of years ago I picked up five porn magazines at random in a motorway service station. None of them have pictures of mature women, although one youngster is labelled a “Mother I’d Like to Fuck.” There are numerous pictures of young blondes with pigtails and white cotton underwear, advertising sex lines with captions like “I’m 18, I really am, why would I lie?” and “I’m not so innocent.” One photo series set in a classroom lets us share in a Japanese schoolgirl’s “self-exploration.” Props include a teddy bear, a lollipop, plastic animals and, weirdly, a Halloween pumpkin. Youth is clearly at a premium in pornography (winter squashes less so).

I think I’m fairly open minded. I might laugh at your sexual fantasies (you on Fetlife with the yellow cagoule, I’m talking about you), but you’re welcome to them. Nevertheless, I saw red when I came across the feature “Fancy a Lolita?” in Sexscape. It begins by singing the praises of underage girls, and then provides a handy guide to fucking them, because “inexperienced dolls with lovely slim bodies are agonizingly attractive to middle aged and older guys. What are you waiting for?”

Apparently fast food restaurants and cinemas are the best places to find ‘Lolitas’, and older men are sure to get a good response because they are more exciting than homework. They should be sure not to give out their address, though, for fear of retributions from angry fathers. The risks are worth it, though, because her beauty, her innocence and her inexperience combine to make her the best sex object around. She’s more easily turned on than adult women, and apparently even tastes better. Like Brita-filtered water, I’m sure.

So this is what I know: there’s a group of people who are very angry about little girls wearing clothes which they perceive as the markers of sexual availability, and there’s a group of people who think that girls are sexy precisely because they don’t act or dress like adult women, and haven’t been sexually available to other men. It sounds to me like they are both on the same side.

I’ve never been tempted to sleep with a child. I have been attracted to people who were under eighteen, mostly when I was under eighteen, too. I’m twenty-five, and now and again I notice a beautiful teenager. I wouldn’t want to get involved with one, independence is an important quality in a lover, and teenagers don’t (or shouldn’t) possess it. But every time I buy into the culture which sells us young flesh, in the form of a face cream, a bikini wax or an album by a teenage pop star with a raunchy music video, I help it along a little bit.

I think that we all need to do a little bit of soul searching. Let the children be.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 18, 2010 at 10:51 pm

On Being a Looker

with 7 comments

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

My Imaginary Lap Dancer

with 2 comments

I write stories. I try to tackle the issues people debate in the abstract with a personal approach. One of my characters has decided that she’s going to work at a lap dancing club. I hadn’t planned it, but it seems like an interesting path. Feminist writers and bloggers have a lot to say on the topic, as do campaign groups like Object. It is much harder to find the views of the people who work in the industry, or the clients. My personal experience is limited to seeing some pole dancing once in a lesbian club in Soho.

Why am I writing about something I haven’t experienced? If I don’t, then all I will ever produce is my autobiography. I think it is going to be interesting in terms of understanding gender construction, objectification, power relationships and sexuality, all of which are my area. We’ll see what happens.

I need more input. Have you ever worked doing lap dancing or pole dancing? Have you ever paid for these services? I want to hear from you. I realise that the experience is not uniform, the people, their motivations, what goes on at work all varies. Nonetheless, my character is a representation of people who seem to be talked about more than heard. If I have more information she can be a better representation.

I will take anything I can get. How did you get into it? How do you spend your time at work? What are the good bits, which bits don’t you like? Do you feel that it changes other people’s perceptions of you? How do you feel about your employers and the customers? Anything you want to tell me will be welcomed.

For the customers, I would love to know what your time at a club is like, what you enjoy about it, how the experience makes you feel, or whatever you want to share.

I don’t need anyone to tell me “lap dancing is wrong because…” I already know those arguments. If your story ends with “boo” or “yay” that’s great, though.

You can post in the comments section or email me at not.an.odalisque@gmail.com. For this, I offer you my everlasting gratitude. Many, many thanks.

Written by Not an Odalisque

April 3, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Snog Marry Strangle With A Burning Bra?

with 2 comments

I don’t watch television very often, but the last time I did, it left an impression on me. Key terms would be ‘horror’, ‘disgust’ and ‘worry’. The show I saw was “Snog Marry Avoid?”

The premise is this: the body of a woman wearing lots of make-up and little clothing is subjected to our gaze. An unflattering picture of her is shown to men on the street, who give their opinions on her desirability. A faux-computer completes a “make-under” and everyone agrees that she looks much better now.

Last night we had Petergay, a 22 year old law student from Brixton, who goes clubbing in revealing outfits. Her mother particularly objects to the nipple tassels. She is filmed posing in her kitchen, so that we can indulge our voyeurism while thinking her ridiculous, her clubbing outfit incongruous in the domestic sphere. Petergay has loads of confidence. She says she loves being naked, she doesn’t want to be skinny, but is proud of her curves, in her own words she’s “unforgettable.” She says she would be ugly without the make-up, but cheerfully removes it on national television.

With an unflattering photograph of Petergay in her nipple-tassels, a crew heads out to ask men on the street what they think of her. Women aren’t asked; lesbians don’t count. 90% of men say they would avoid her because she looks “mad” and “scary.” She’s frightening the men away! Not men that she feels any desire for, just men in general. The simulated computer uses this as justification for insults, and the clinching argument for the conclusion that Petergay needs to be transformed.

The normativity of this method hardly needs to be spelt out. Asking a random sample of men on the street assumes heterosexuality. Asking them to assess her based on a photograph privileges her looks over say, her personality or her law degree, and is objectifying. Asking them to choose from “snog, marry, avoid?” gives only two relationship options (you’re not in a relationship if you’re running the other way). “Snog” is a not very cleverly coded way of saying “fuck”. They are asking would you fuck this girl and leave her or fuck this girl and keep her? Say hello to the virgin-whore dichotomy, the outmoded belief that women can either be wives and mothers or sex objects. The establishment usually favours the former, and so does the BBC.

Next, Petergay gets slagged off by a faux-computer. She’s “ridiculous”, a “naked boob-bearer”, a “nipple flashing naked nightmare”. She is told that she should look more natural, then given a new haircut, outfit and make-up.

I almost never go out with as much make up and jewellery as Petergay was wearing after her “make-under.” Huge earrings dangled from her ears, an ill-fitting dress revealed curves, cleavage and leg, and she could hardly walk in her high heels.

Note that the aim of the new, natural look is still attractiveness to men, but now concealing artificial elements of beauty. Petergay does not cease wearing make-up, merely has it applied in such a way that an illusion may be created that she isn’t. “Natural Beauty” doesn’t remove artifice, it adds another layer.

Nonetheless, Petergay looked anything but natural. “Natural” for women is, apparently, not very natural at all. Presenting it as natural gives it a currency it does not deserve, and conflates an aesthetic norm of femininity with innate characteristics. Women do not wear makeup, earrings and nylon because they are women, but because they are conforming with an ideal of femininity. It is a different ideal to nipple-tassles and fake eyelashes, but not any more natural. Being naked, after all, was surely more natural than encasing herself in man-made fabrics.

90% of men on the street wanted to snog Petergay in her new outfit. 10% wanted to marry her. I’m sure that this law student is looking for someone whose life partner is chosen on the basis of a photograph.

The programme went on. An overweight girl with a manga-based look was ridiculed but not made over. Another girl was told to wear less fake tan and looser fitting clothes. Men and female family members cooed over the changes. Petergay reappeared in a tight-fitting, partially transparent outfit to tell us that she now has a boyfriend and he prefers her new, “natural” look. Everyone congratulates themselves on the difference they have made to the world.

The rationale of this programme, rammed home at every possible opportunity, is that women should dress more demurely in order to be attractive to men. At various points in the programme, the women’s original looks are critically associated with excessive drinking, hedonistic culture, lack of education and lack of sophistication. They are encouraged to change because then they will be perceived differently. In other words, the message is that women should accept that dressing in the way they think is sexy, expressing their sexuality visually, is in opposition to being taken seriously. “I’m doing a law degree” doesn’t trump a pair of pink hot pants.

Interestingly, the make-unders often conceal their subjects’ sexuality with an appeal to childhood. Just before Petergay removes her make-up, the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ shows a picture of her as a young girl, saying that she looked “pretty” and implying that she should do away with the trappings of adulthood, returning to her childhood self. The second transformation creates a look of childhood innocence with flowers in the hair. It isn’t surprising that a pastiche of innocence is used to conceal sexuality, but it is problematic when the justification for the new look is that people will better recognise the women’s abilities.

I’m not saying these women didn’t look silly, but if they saw me out in my voluminous ankle-length skirt and hand knitted jumper they probably wouldn’t think much of my style. In fact, the objects of the make-under were fantastic challenges to the ideology. They didn’t accept that their sexuality undermined their other qualities, they laughed in the face of the ‘Personal Overhaul Device’ when it presented the results of its meaningless survey. Petergay told it “I don’t know what sort of people you’re asking this, you need to go to Brixton.”

She made a very good point. Brixton is predominantly working class. What does this show associate with the ‘unnatural’ look? Drinking, hedonism, lack of education and lack of sophistication. Doesn’t that sound a lot like a middle class view of the working class?

The show isn’t just sexist, it purveys a middle class morality. Hiding behind a mechanical voice, it pretends that its standards are universal, rather than situated in a specific culture. It simultaneously criticises women for dressing in a way which attracts male attention and tells them to dress to solicit the right kind of male attention. It does all this while looking at half-naked women with a voyeuristic gaze which cements its hypocritical nature.

The pressure which society puts upon women to create a sexualised appearance is worrying. Amanda Hess addresses the subject very well here .Shows like ‘Snog Marry Avoid?’ don’t help women, they make the problem much, much worse.

Written by Not an Odalisque

March 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I Think You’re Gorgeous

with 2 comments

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).

http://postsecret.blogspot.com/

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