This quote, written by comedy playwright Titus Plautus sometime between 254-184 B.C, at first glance appears to be an archaic quip, unlikely to be at all relevant in our modern world. Written by a playwright whose work was overwhelmingly concerned with men sowing their wild oats, perhaps a bit of sexist, Roman “bantz” is to be expected, despite the fact that Shakespeare is said to have been heavily influenced by his work. His point isn't terribly subtle; that a bare-faced woman without makeup was somehow incomplete, perhaps a bit bland and unappetising. There's also the crude comparison being made between women and food; women were a pleasure in life, existing only for the consumption and delectation of men, and therefore they had to be as palatable as possible. Still; good job we’re past all that nonsense nowadays, right?
Let's fast forward to July 2015. It’s the night of my daughter’s school “prom,”which marks the end of seven years of primary school.
I watch, transfixed, as a parade of “painted,” eleven year old girls are dropped off by their parents. Off the shoulder numbers, slinky cocktail dresses, tight sheathes and mini skirts. Bright red, scarlet coated lips, full mascara and eye liner. Hot pink blusher and lashings of bronzer. They look like contestants in a beauty pageant, all teetering about uncertainly on five inch heels, as if they are playing dress up with their mum’s clothes.
It breaks my heart.
Because here it begins. A life time of preening before mirrors and decorating themselves. A lifetime of hairspray and leg waxing and lip gloss. A lifetime of squeezing into tight clothes and even tighter shoes; that leave blisters and make the balls of the feet ache to high Hell. A lifetime of slavish devotion at the altar of beauty, that shouldn't begin at all, not really. It certainly shouldn't begin at the tender age of eleven.
If you're reading this and thinking “oh Lord, here's another angry, joyless, fun-spoiling feminist, on a crusade to make everyone plain and wear comfortable shoes,” then you're wrong (well, partly.) While it does disturb me that such young girls feel the need to make themselves up like this, it's actually the glaring inequality of it that worries me the most.
A quick glance at the boys who attended the prom, told me that already the lives of these children are desperately unequal. The boys were to be found sporting artlessly mussed hairstyles or tidy shaved crops. Comfortable, lace up shoes. Loose fitting, cool cotton shirts and baggy slacks. In their outfits they had the freedom to run around madly on the dance floor, chase one another, or flop down onto the ground or onto a chair, legs relaxingly stretched out in front of them.
Meanwhile, the girls hugged their bodies with their arms, sat carefully and gingerly so as not to ruffle dresses, hitch up skirts or accidentally expose themselves. There was no running in five inch stacked heels or wedge sandals. Movements were careful, deliberate and contained. The inequality of movement was very evident, and it's the saddest thing I've seen in a long time.
Did those little girls (because they are little girls, for all that they ape womanhood) enjoy dressing up for their prom? Of course they did. So did my own little girl. I have no desire to deprive her of the transformational fun to be had in experimenting with make-up. As children grow and approach puberty a disturbing dynamic develops, as evidenced by the marked difference in the appearance of this particular bunch of eleven year old boys and girls. These children are social media savvy; they're no stranger to Instagram or Snapchat. Virtually anything can be accessed via their mobile phones, and if your child doesn't have one, you can bet that their friend does.
This leaves them open, and extremely vulnerable, to viewing the kinds of things that we probably didn't see until we were well into our teens. For girls, this often manifests itself by a desire to appear sexually attractive, long before they've even worked out what exactly that means. Pouting selfies, complete with hand on hip and nonchalant head-toss are very much de rigueur – I know, I've taken a look at some of their public Instagram accounts. Their lives seem to revolve around seeking the approval of the boys, regardless of how deserving said boys are; the need for validation from them is so entrenched that I'm not sure they even realise they're doing it. Meanwhile, the boys couldn't care less; they continue playing mine craft and football, lapping up the attention and treating the girls with careless indifference.
Young girls are taught that this state of affairs is, for them, empowering. That to pout suggestively into your mobile phone is somehow a feminist expression, as long as you do it confidently – confidence is empowering, girls! But how can something which is restrictive of movement, time, and money be empowering? Surely being restricted – in more ways than one – is the very definition of an absence of power.
I don't doubt that looking sexy and attractive can feel empowering. The approval, the rush of compliments, the attention, can feel very much like power. This is an illusion. For starters, the very definition of sexy in our world means something very specific; prominent breasts, slim figure, hairless skin, long hair, wide eyes and long lashes, full lips, perfectly straight and impossibly white teeth. This is the image of womanhood that we see most commonly in pornography and men's magazines. This is the image that is found desirous by men; and by men I mean white, rich men, for
they are the ones who are the driving force behind the porn and media industries. It is their vision of
womanhood that holds sway and to that we must all aspire.
To hell with you if you're not slim enough. Or too old. Or have skin too dark or too pale. Or you're not Caucasian. Or you're hairy. Or your breasts are too small. Or your teeth are crooked. Or your nose is too big. In short, most of us. And if you fit the mould now, hang fire; one day you won't, because you're not going to stay young forever.
Power that is dependant on your waist size remaining less than 25 inches, requires you to rip out your body hair at the roots, and necessitates you resembling Dorian Grey, doesn't really sound like power to me. If your power is dependant upon the approval and vagaries of men; rich, white men mind, then it's not really power at all.
Criticism of this unbelievably sexist framework, invariably results in accusations of jealousy, that go along the lines of this:
“You're just saying that because you wished you look like her. You're saying that because you're old/fat/old/bitter.” The whole conversation is stacked against women. Let's pit us against one another and do you know who benefits? It's not women. It's never women. This is patriarchy in action, and we all collude in it, because to go against it is an uphill struggle.
Perhaps a disproportionate number of radical feminists are older, or have short hair, or unshaven legs, or actually, more likely, just don't give a damn about being seen as attractive or not. Do you think this is because we’re jealous, embittered harridans? Or is it merely because we’ve suffered more under patriarchy because we don't conform, and thus are well versed in the damage it does to women? Or maybe we’re just tired of conforming to a pointless and inevitably unattainable standard of beauty that appeals largely to men, and have wisely ditched the razor blades, tweezers and stiletto heels? Or maybe, we actually do conform to patriarchy’s idea of womanhood, but resist the urge to objectify ourselves because we actually have at least a modicum of understanding of structural oppression and see how sexualising ourselves is a huge part of this.
The standard of beauty expected of young girls and women is increasingly high. The spread in usage of beauty treatments, nail bars, etc has rocketed in the past fifteen years. To shun this, and to attempt to plough a different furrow, is a really hard ask, particularly for girls who are still years away from adulthood. At a time when feminism is apparently a mainstream concept in the West, and liberation for women ought to be a reality, why have the acceptable parameters for womanhood shrunk to such narrow margins? Why are women more universally sexualised than ever before? Something is amiss.
So let's stop conflating feminism with heavily stacked, so-called choices, and instead start talking about how we can equip our young girls to see themselves as more than a heavily filtered, pouting image on Instagram. Let’s give our young girls the tools and the courage to live life outside of the male gaze; beyond a consideration of how male centric preferences may impact upon them. Let’s start questioning – wholesale – our vision of womanhood and female sexuality, and above all else, can we please stop naming it empowerment. Your empowerment is my sexual objectification, and it's hurting my little girl.