Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Stop calling me ugly

It’s time to get personal.

The last year has seen me get a lot more, shall we say, public, in my feminist activism. This has, of course, opened me up to a lot more criticism. And, as is so common when people want to criticise people they don’t know, but make assumptions about, they have criticised my appearance. Or, to put it more correctly, what they imagine my appearance is.

This cumulated for me yesterday when someone posted a picture of what they imagined I looked like on the comment section under an article on the Evening Post website.

I’m not going to tell you what I look like. And I try not to care when people who have never seen me tell me I must be fat and ugly, a lesbian, jealous of pretty girls, in need of a boyfriend or whatever (and, my favourite, that I am not an “intellectual”! Which reminded me of Fanny and Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate). Because, apart from jealousy, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being fat, not stereotypically attractive, gay or single (or not being intellectual!). But I know that the people who call me that do see something wrong with it, and mean it to be offensive and upsetting, and mean it to hurt me. And no matter how many times you say ‘sticks and stones’, it isn’t really true, is it.

But it got me thinking about a number of things.

Why do people think that to criticise a woman’s appearance is the worst thing they can do? Why do we still put so much value in appearance? And why is being told I am not beautiful, from someone who has never seen me, so upsetting?
Society (I know, it’s a big word) value women’s beauty. From Naomi Wolf’s PBQ to the fame and celebrity a woman with a nice bone structure (Kate Moss) gets, women are valued for their beauty. Beauty – a certain type of it – is synonymous with femaleness or femininity. To call me ugly is a weapon. It suggests that I am an anti-woman, I am the pits, I am a disgrace to my sex. It is a callous and lazy method to devalue and silence what I say.

To accuse me of being jealous of other women is the same thing. Because by calling me ugly, you are saying I have somehow ‘failed’ as a woman, you say I must be jealous of ‘successful’ women, women who are considered (by you) to be beautiful. By making the issue being about my jealousy, you are derailing the point of the argument I am making. You are saying the issue, e.g. sexual objectification, is not a problem in society, but my problem with jealousy.

Why do people rely on tired stereotypes when arguing about really important issues? Again, it is to devalue the point, to turn it into my problem.

It also got me thinking about women and our relationships with our bodies. It’s no secret that women are often insecure about their bodies and their appearance. I’m not going to lie, I am one of them. I’m in good company, something like 70% of women internationally aren’t happy with the way they look (Dove survey). But after ten years of swerving between violent hate, and general distaste, I like the way I look. I put to bed my insecurities, I made a decision to stop hating my body and to start loving it. I look in the mirror and I am happy, I get dressed in the morning and dress up in the evening and I am happy.

It has taken me years and a lot of pain and hassle to reach that point. It’s a fragile point. And reading over and over again from idiots who think it is ok/funny/whatever to call me ugly over and over again is exhausting. It’s upsetting. Even though I know to pay no attention, it is still hard to ignore. It’s still hard not to take it personally. I cried when I saw that picture on the Evening Post forum. I wanted to know what I had done to deserve someone thinking it was ok to be so goddamn mean to me. I hadn’t even commented on the thread.

And that’s me. Someone who is happy with the way I look. But what if I wasn’t? What effect would your words have then? What could you be doing to someone?

There are people who say ‘well, you put yourself out there, you have to deal with it, no-one forces you to blog.’
This argument is bullshit. I should be able to blog about whatever I like, without having to deal with abuse about my supposed personal appearance. Even if I wrote a load of shit you didn’t agree with, you could disagree with it without saying ‘you’re just jealous’ or ‘you’re probably really ugly’ etc etc.

There are people who say, ‘well you shouldn’t put yourself out there, doing activism.’ I’m sorry, but so long as I see the injustice of gender inequality, I am going to keep doing my activism. Again, I should be allowed to campaign for equality without people making snide and spiteful remarks about what they imagine I look like.

What is it about the internet that allows people to think they can be so rude? To say things you would never say to my face? The power of anonymity is massive. But it is inexcusable and stupid. Stchoopid.

So, in summary. We need to stop using appearance as a stick to beat women with. We need to stop thinking the best way to win an argument is ‘uuh well you’re probably a minger’. We need to stop thinking beauty is women’s most important possession, and that to not have beauty is shaming.

And we need to stop and think and say ‘what if this really hurts the person writing?’

Criticise away. Argue back, have healthy debate.

But please, stop calling me ugly.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Airbrushing and advertising

The last few months have seen the issue of airbrushing and image retouching rarely out of the news, following calls from Lib Dem politicians Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone to add health warning labels to airbrushed images aimed at children, and the launch of their Campaign for Body Confidence ( Debenhams have led the way, ( in introducing non-airbrused images of models, and we are now waiting to see whether other brands will follow suit.

Image re-touching is used in my industry all the time – making the sky bluer, making the grass greener. However, we now uniformly airbrush images of people to make them fit a beauty ideal that increasingly fails to reflect reality. The result is that airbrushed imagery is now so ingrained in our collective consciousness, we no longer see them as ‘not real’ and accept re-touched photos as presenting reality.

The politians’ argument is that the use of unrealistic and idealised images of a caucasian, skinny beauty-type is causing harm and distress for young people, who are growing up surrounded by unrealistic representations of men and women’s bodies. They argue that the advertising industry need to take responsibility for the imagery we use, and that we need to produce images offering a wide range of body types, ethnicities and appearance, as opposed to a single, homogenized ideal.

In turn, the media industries have argued that customers and potential customers respond better to images of slim women and thin, muscular men, and that we need to use these images because they are what people want to see. However, studies from UWE’s Centre of Appearance Research ( debunk this claim. They argue that so long as the model used in advertising and media imagery is attractive, the customer will still respond positively whether the model is slim or not. This was tested by measuring responses to images of the same model, some airbrushed to look like a size 8, and other images of her own size 14 figure. Therefore the idea that we need to use one type of model in order to gurantee a positive customer response does not hold water.
If the government do introduce new regulations to the way we approach image retouching of models, it could revolutionise the way men and women are portrayed in the media and in advertising. Already, Debenhams have exposed the amount of airbrushing that each image receives, and are arguing that ‘not only does it make sense from a moral point of view, it ticks the economic boxes as well,’ by saving time and money on needless retouching.

The research suggests that using skinny or average sized models doesn’t effect customer response. We know that this change could save us money. And, perhaps most pressingly of all, the evidence is persuasive that ending our culture of airbrushing could have a very real and positive impact on the self esteem of young men and women.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Please don't open hooters

I've written to the council to object to Hooters opening in Bristol. The licensing committee sits on 1st September so all late representations need to be in by then.

This whole issue is making me depressed.

Feel free to copy and paste my letter as you wish:

I am writing to you to lodge my objection to the proposed opening of a Hooters restaurant in Bristol City Centre. I understand that the licensing committee is sitting on the 1st September and I hope you will take my late representation in to account.

My first objection rests on the impact on the environment surrounding Hooters.

It is well documented that where sex entertainment venues open, women moving around in the surrounding environment suffer from increased levels of sexual harassment and violence. I understand that Hooters is not an SEV, however it does make its money through presenting women as sex objects for entertainment. This would, therefore, have a similar impact on women in the area surrounding the proposed Hooters site. It is not acceptable for a business to open that would make women feel unsafe in city centre spaces, because they would be at risk of, or fear verbal and even physical harassment. Hooters encourages its customers to indulge in sexual innuendo and asks their waitresses to play along. We need to ask how can we know whether this 'innuendo' will spill out of the restaurant and result in customers harassing women passers by in ways the women may perceive as threatening.

Many women would not feel comfortable walking past an establishment that so clearly treats women as little more than sex objects. They may find the atmosphere around the restaurant hostile, or even threatening. It is not acceptable that women should feel excluded from public spaces that are, after all, for all members of the public.

My second objection is to the blatant disregard to equalities law that Hooters has. I would like to know whether the equalities team have been consulted in order to assess the impact on women and minority groups in the city? Hooters refuses to employ male waiting staff, and would also discriminate against trans people, women who choose to wear religious dress, older women and women with physical disabilities. It is simply not acceptable that a business should be permitted to so blatantly ignore anti-discrimination practise enshrined in UK law when hiring waiting staff. These laws are in place to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to get work. It is for this reason, for example, that you are not asked your age when applying for a job. A company's brand values should not be allowed to trump equality law and it is clearly unacceptable to have an employment policy that so clearly discriminates against so many groups of people.

Finally I would like the licensing committee to ask the Hooters' representatives how they plan to deal with any incidents of inappropriate touching of waitressing staff. The correct way for a business to deal with inappropriate touching of an employee is to report the offender and incident to the police. Please note that ejecting the offender from the establishment is not appropriate action.

I understand that licensing applications do not take moral objections. Therefore all my objections are based on environmental impact and legal ramifications of Hooters opening in Bristol.

Thank you

Yours sincerely,
Sian Norris