Four Decades On

The 70s are back in fashion and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Forget any flower-power fancy dress notions that the 1970s bring to mind and, instead, think glamour – we’re talking a sexy, tough glamour that embraces female empowerment as much as the female form.  It’s 1970s with a touch of ’30s and ‘40s thrown in the mix: grown-up, glamorous and rather seductive.

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The 1970s have been described as a time of quiet revolution for women.  Four decades later, and the resurgence of ‘70s fashion has got me thinking about how much has really changed. Of course, without a doubt, progress has been made. There was the introduction of the birth control pill, available from the 1960s, allowing women to be in control of contraception for the first time.  In 1967 abortion was legalised in the UK, with the USA following suit in 1973 (following the landmark Roe vs. Wade case).  In 1969, divorce law underwent its greatest transformation, with the Divorce Reform Act allowing marriages to be ended without fault having to be proven and, finally, in the late 1990s-early 2000 the role of the homemaker was recognised, and remunerated, by the courts.  The 1990s brought us another long-overdue move towards gender equality, when it was finally made illegal for a man to rape his wife in the UK (I won’t get into a discussion here as to why it took this country until 1991 to recognise marital/spousal rape…).  All of these changes represent women, in the western world, gaining rights over their bodies; rights which our foremothers fought for and which have changed the way we live today.

However, if we stay with the issue of rape and take a look at rape conviction rates they tell us a lot about how far we still have to go. In the UK today, only 6.5% of reported rapes end in a conviction (and rape is a notoriously under-reported crime).  What does this mean? Do we, as a society, really believe that 93.5% of women who report a rape are lying?  Britain has the lowest conviction rate for rape in Europe and it has fallen steadily since the 1970s, when one in three reported rapes resulted in a conviction.  In the 1990s, it was one in six and today, it’s one in fifteen.  How did this happen and what does it say about how we view men and women in 2011?

The 1970s saw the gender pay gap close a little, following the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which prohibited the differential treatment of men and women in terms of pay and working conditions and was the first legislation of its kind in this country.  This act was a result of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968 (recently inspiring the film Made in Dagenham).  Despite the passing of over forty years, pay is still a huge issue in the battle for equality between the sexes. On average, women earn 16% less than men, with women over 40 earning 27% less. If a woman has a degree she will lose, on average, 4% of her lifetime earnings if she is also a mother; if she does not have a degree, then she faces a whopping 58% loss of earnings. There are still men out there who think this is fair; I know, having had the misfortune to meet some of them. I’ll never forget the charming young man who initiated a conversation with me about the pay gap while at an academic conference; I was a Masters student and one of a handful of women delivering a presentation.  He told me that women deserve to earn less than men because, apparently, we all insist on taking ‘a holiday’ to have babies. He himself wanted a family, but of course expected his wife, rather than himself, to make the career sacrifice. He also refused to accept that the issue was more complicated than simply being about babies.  Do you want the worst part of this little anecdote?  He told me he had just finished contributing to a research project which was assessing how to tackle the problem of the gender pay gap….  This story perfectly encapsulates why I generally find academia, compared to the world of fashion and modelling, much more misogynistic.

The problem of the pay gap is reflective of disparities between men and women at the level of business and politics.  In the UK, we have elected to office the two parties that have the least amount of female MPs.  There are 144 female MPs compared to 505 male MPs: 75 of these MPs are Labour; 49 are Conservative; 14 are Liberal Democrats, and; 6 belong to other parties (including the one Green MP, the fantastic Caroline Lucas).  Compare this to 1979 when we had a woman running the country (albeit one who failed to appoint ANY OTHER WOMEN TO HER CABINET…!).  In business, the picture is no rosier.  Women make up only 12.5% of FTSE 100 boards and the proportion has stagnated as such for the last three years.  It will come as no surprise to my fashionable friends that the company with the highest proportion of female representation is a fashion retailer (Burberry, with three out of eight board members being female).  Widening the net to FTSE 250 companies is even more depressing, with over 50% of such companies having no women at all on their boards.

So this is a call to arms, ladies!  Fashion may be cyclical but if we want feminism to keep moving us forward (or, rather, to move us forward once more) we need to fight.  Don those platform stilettos and file your nails to a sharp point – you’ll need all the tools you can muster to continue smashing and scratching your way through the old glass ceiling.

Image Credits:

Photographer Ian Austin

Stylist Ruby Henderson

MUA Sian-Louise Auld

Hair Stylist Martin Bland

Model Jessica Berry

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The Demonisation of Breasts

I started to think about this in the summer, when I read a news story which went like this: in Italy a woman was sunbathing topless on a beach and when rubbing suncream on her breasts, was confronted by another woman who told her to cover up because her bare breasts were ‘confusing’ her teenage sons. The police were called and, although being topless is not illegal in Italy, the sunbathing woman was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’.

This reminded me of a conversation I had had with a friend while I was staying in America. My friend related how she had been in a bar one night and had felt disgusted at the sight of a woman who was obviously not wearing a bra under her top. The top was not see through, but the sight of the shape of a natural breast, and moreover the message that this bra-less woman was deemed to be sending out, had my friend morally outraged. She concluded that the woman must have been a prostitute.

In the case of the sunbather, I feel so disappointed that the mother did not take the opportunity to explain to her sons that there is nothing confusing about breasts, they are simply one part of a woman’s body and that while of course they may look good, feel good and play a sexual function, they are, essentially, there to produce milk to feed babies. However, instead of educating her sons, she victimised the sunbather and reinforced the message that breasts are dirty, to be hidden away and kept from view.

In the case of my friend, appalled that a woman would chose not to wear a bra, I could not believe that this is what womankind has come to. Gone are the days when we would burn bras to protest against their real and symbolic constraining of the natural female form, now the natural shape of a breast is seen as dirty and lewd.

Meanwhile, facebook has a big problem with breasts, especially nipples. Not men’s nipples of course, only women’s. A topless male is fine; a topless female corrupts. For months now, I’ve been hearing about photographers having their images removed from facebook when breasts are shown. If the nipples are censored, it seems that’s acceptable. I’m not talking sexually explicit, page three, pornographic images. I’m talking high fashion, tasteful, artistic images of the likes seen in Vogue, where the woman’s chest just happens to be naked and in shot, not like the images of Nuts or Zoo, where the model is holding a sexually provocative pose and showing her breasts as a means to encourage sexual arousal. Presumably, the removal all images showing breats on facebook is done under clause 3.7 of the facebook ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’ which states that “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence”. It is hard to know whether the images are removed because they are deemed pornographic or simply because they contain nudity, but I’m assuming it’s the latter because the images are clearly not pornographic. They are not sexually explicit images whose primary purpose is to create sexual arousal. So if it’s because the images contain nudity, then why are topless pictures of men not removed? What are facebook telling us here? That the naked female chest, especially the nipple area, is obscene and dirty? These would be the same breasts, the same nipples, that many of us suckle from as babies and go on to feed our own babies with.

Which of course leads us on to one of the more damaging elements of this issue, which is the impact that all of this has on breastfeeding. A UK Department of Health survey found that 84% of people find breastfeeding in public acceptable if done discreetly. Therefore, it seems that the onus is on the mother, when feeding her child, to be discreet.  Heaven forbid the general public should see some flesh or, shock horror, a bit of nipple when a baby is getting it’s nourishment. (It seems our nipple-shy friends at facebook also find breastfeeding obscene and will remove images of women feeding their babies under, you’ve guessed it, clause 3.7; you can join the protest against this by joining the group ‘Hey facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!’). And so now there are a great number of tent-like products available for new mothers to buy to hide their baby and breasts under when they’re feeding. As if you haven’t enough to buy / worry about / carry around when you have a baby, apparently you should also lug around a contraption with which to shield the world from your shameful act of nature.

And now, apparently, legs are in danger of becoming equally disturbing. On Monday (1st November, 2010) the Italian town of Castellammare di Stabia will undertake a vote to establish whether to ban the miniskirt, under anti-social behaviour legislation. Yes, showing your legs is anti-social. A local parish priest has argued that the measure will also help to reduce sexual harassment. Forget having a culture that recognises that women’s bodies are not merely sexual objects and that refraining from sexual harassment is the responsibility of the perpetrator and not the victim. Oh no, just cover up ladies! This is harking back to the days when it was acceptable to question a rape victim on what clothes she was wearing at the time of attack, or whether she had red lipstick on, to determine whether she was “asking for it”.

The over-sexualisation and, ultimately, demonisation of women’s bodies undoubtedly comes from society’s obsession with sex and the mainstreaming of women being regarded as purely sexual objects. In this respect, Kira Cochrane’s article on pornography is very thought-provoking. Subconsciously, we are being encouraged more and more to automatically associate a woman’s body with sex, in a way which we do not do with men. In doing so, we are both putting women’s bodies up onto a pedestal, where they are seen as desirable in a way in which men’s are not, but also shameful, in that they are always associated with sex, which we too often associate with shame.  Boobs are just boobs, they’re bits of flesh, just one part of a woman’s body. Some women have big breasts, some have small ones, some don’t have any. Can we please stop making such a big deal out of them?  If you think “sex” every time you see breasts, then you need to re-train your brain. The problem’s in your head, not on her chest.

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A September Shoot

I did a lovely photoshoot a couple of weeks ago so thought I’d share a few of my favourite images from the day on here.

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Photographer Adrian Crook

Stylists Ruby Henderson and Tahir Mahmood

MUA Jemma Stokes

Model Jessica Berry

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Blog on Blog off

Well here I go, first blog, first post. Of course I’ve read many a blog, but have never quite got round to setting up my own. But now on the 1st of October, I figured that after pinching and punching I might as well get blogging. Forget new year’s resolutions, the short cold days of autumn seem like the perfect time to set up a blog.

I have to say, though, I hate the word ‘blog’ (and I’ve used it so many times already in that tiny first paragraph!) and I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve not forayed into this wordpress world before. Thinking about this got me wondering who the first bloggers were and what their online diaries looked like. So looking into ‘pioneer bloggers’ I was interested by

Justin Hall’s non-linear life story (nicely structurde but could be (a lot) easier on the eye)

Jerry Pournelle’s advice on how to be a writer

I found a bunch of other blogs too, but I’m afraid I came to the conclusion, after this research, that most of the founding fathers don’t have the greatest blogs now. I guess it proves that first doesn’t always equal best.

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