Emma Ward works for an addiction charity and is co-director of Progressive Women.
This week I attended ‘Lifting the Lid’, an event hosted by the Women’s Fabian Network to discuss the sexualisation of women and girls in British society and culture. The keynote speaker was Diane Abbott MP, Labour’s Shadow Public Health Minister.
My ears pricked up when I heard about this event as I am often left confused and frustrated with the debate around girls’ so-called ‘sexualisation’. It seems absolutely clear to me that how women and girls are talked about and portrayed in schools, families and the media influences both their aspirations and how they feel about themselves. However, within this debate I have felt disheartened by conversations I have had with feminists who have called Page 3 women ‘nothing more than glorified sex dolls’ and Katie Price a ‘travesty’. In my opinion, this not only feels reminiscent of the ‘slut-shaming’ that as feminists we claim to be challenging, but it effectively seeks to nullify the voices and experiences of some of the girls and women we want to empower.
So, in short, I attended this event with trepidation. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. Overall, I thought it was an enjoyable, balanced discussion of an important and complex issue. I was impressed by Diane Abbott’s apparently genuine passion and commitment to feminism. I was relieved to hear discussions that didn’t demonise women’s sexuality or women having sex. My favourite quote was from blogger Emma Burnell:
With slut shaming it’s the shaming not the shagging that’s the problem.
Burnell rightly pointed out that part of girls’ growing-up process is the development of their sexuality and therefore becoming ‘sexualised’ is not in itself the problem. The danger lies in how that developing sexuality is influenced and portrayed by society. I was also thrilled to hear a number of people raise concerns about how both genders are portrayed in limiting ways by society and the consequent negative impact on men’s and boys’ self esteem. Abbott even hinted that she may focus on this area next.
My only bug bear with the evening was when talk turned to role models. Everyone agreed that young women need a range of diverse positive role models in order to fuel and support their aspirations. So far, so good. When I started to get a bit uncomfortable was when Abbott claimed we needed ‘less Paris Hilton and more Jessica Ennis’. We’d spent the whole evening discussing the negative impact on women’s self esteem when they are bombarded with messages about how they should or should not look, think and act. And then we dove right into the dichotomy that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ women. Jessica Ennis is an amazing, but flawed human being – like the rest of us. Paris Hilton has her faults but has successfully earned a fortune in her own right. I think we are on dangerous ground if we try to reduce women into those who represent the ‘right’ women and those who do not.
Emma Burnell made the great point that one of the reasons that figures like Paris Hilton and Katie Price appeal is because their lives seem much more fun than that of an MP. We need to ensure that the portrayal of women who are successful in areas like politics, business and sport are more visible and rounded so that those positions seem more accessible and desirable to young girls. We don’t need to criticise who else is in the limelight to achieve this. I tend to think that until we start listening and empathising with the reasons that some young girls want to grow up to be Paris Hilton or Katie Price, helping them to find their authentic voice and join the debate, then we are just joining all the others who are telling them who they should or should not be.
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