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Get over it: women’s bodies and the discourse that’s stuck in a rut

2014 January 20
by Zoe Strimpel
Fat or fatter; who really cares?

Fat or fatter; I’ve lost the will to care

I’ve had it with the body. It’s bringing down feminism.

There is no doubt that women’s bodies and the experience of female embodiment are a key manifestation of myriad sexist attitudes. Rape, abuse, discrimination, objectification – these are all bound up in the belief that women’s bodies and thus women invite or deserve ownership, dominion, ridicule and usage.

And this – the prevalence of abuse and tangible discrimination – is where the debate and activism needs to stay focussed, where underlying issues – as explored for instance in Susan Faludi’s expose of masculinity in Stiffed – need to be intelligently explored.

As for the rest, the body image, air-brushing, magazine-coverage stuff, it is inevitably hypocritical, boring and small. It’s on a loop and it’s going nowhere.

Reading Jezebel, the Vagenda and various other feminist forums, as well as mainstream “women’s press”, you’d think the biggest problem facing us today was the fact that “real” women appear airbrushed in glossies. The latest furore over Lena Dunham’s appearance in Vogue is a case in point of how far off, how limited, how narcissistic some of the dominant strands of feminist debate have become. Rather than keeping issues that are unfair and out of women’s control – such as abuse and pay inequality and maternity practices – in the forefront, mainstream women’s discourse is utterly in love with pseudo-academic preoccupations with the body, the ingredient du jour in a cocktail that also includes poorly thought out pickings from social science, pop neurology and psychology.

Indeed, feminism in the Anglo-American media been hijacked by a veritable obsession with women’s bodies and their representation. Instead of paving the way for more positive self-image through achievement and a sense of self that has nothing to do with the body, it is, reprehensibly and seemingly without self-awareness, locking us in even more to our physical realities. Biology isn’t destiny? That’s not the sense I get reading reams and reams and reams of outrage about female body imagery. Does the body have to be foremost? Can women not pursue their struggles and dreams sometimes oblivious to the political or sexual status of their bodies?

The fact is, nobody has a coherent body policy. Lena Dunham, who politicises the female body by trumping dominant expectations and appearing naked and fat in Girls, likes the way she looks in the recent Vogue shoot. That way is pretty, in a ladylike black dress and stilettos. She also sports tattoos, beer gut and a double chin. It’s inconsistent. Big whoop. Sometimes I like to dress up and show my cleavage – I also don’t believe in waxing, or uncomfortable footwear, or wearing lots of skin makeup. Also inconsistent.

So what? If we want, we can pick apart every last woman – feminist, glamour model, corporate executive – and read endless politics into her self-representation. There is politics there, but when tethered to a big, blamey protracted whine about how magazine images corrupt young girls into thinking they have to look like a cross between Kate Moss and Kim Kardashian, or how the airbrushing of 27-year old Lena Dunham from very flawed to just a tiny bit less flawed makes grownup women confused about what they should look like, all that “feminism” becomes is a circular argument about – surprise surprise – women’s bodies.

Can’t we move on, forwards, upwards or just somewhere else? Isn’t it more interesting to consider why there aren’t more women in science, why women CARE about magazine images (I really don’t understand that), why women themselves are so complicit in glossy magazine aesthetics (from Anna Wintour to the editor of French Closer, famous for busting Kate Middleton naked sunbathing and now, Francoise Hollande’s affair), the way consumerism and capitalism shape stylised body representations, what goes on in homes such that girls and then women rarely ask questions in university seminars …..

Because I’m bored of the body image question. As an adult woman, I don’t feel that society is working overtime to make me feel fat and useless. As a teenager, I felt that more – but then, feeling fat and useless is an adolescent truism for those of us who weren’t the popular girl or the hot girl or the sexy girl next door. We’re grownups now but the debates about air-brushing and body image seem to be stuck in an earlier developmental stage, both emotionally and intellectually.

There are further problems with this hollow line of debate about women and magazines and imagery. If women’s magazines – usually named as the key culprit – are so toxic, why does every other female graduate desperately want to work for one? If they’re so dangerous, why not slap warnings, like on cigarette packets, on them? Or better yet, why don’t we give our girls something better to read? From George Eliot to Mary Wollstonecraft, girls and young women might find something to be inspired by in which the appearance of our bodies is so by the bye they are all but forgotten. The power of the glossy image might lose some of its power. But maybe the feminist discourse-makers wouldn’t like that, because then they’d have to write about boring things, that had nothing to do with the body, prettiness, makeup, and the question of sex appeal.



Ahh. Weddings.

2014 January 1
by Zoe Strimpel
Tradition is still going strong. But why?

Tradition is still going strong. But why? Really – why??

Weddings are lovely. Of course they are. A great big party, a goose-bump rousing dash of formality, with the help of God in some cases, to tether contemporary coupling to thousands of years of tradition. Families converge, grannies look on with inscrutable expressions, kids look Hallmark-cute (I write as a former in-demand flower girl of Massachusetts circa 1985), bridesmaids strut their stuff (often secretly annoyed at the expense and bother and of course, the bride’s taste) and tears flow as the bride and groom walk down the aisle.

The wedding I attended on New Year’s Eve included all of these things (perhaps without bridesmaid annoyance; I couldn’t tell), though my tears weren’t flowing as I didn’t know the couple – it was that weird thing when a couple is forced to invite you because you’re going out with their cousin. Very nice of them indeed, poor dears. Especially as I partook of their food and drink all while keeping my anthropological, ever so slightly judgemental eye peeled. I saw plenty of scripts being enacted, plenty of jovial wedding cliches and traditions going ahead full-force, lots of classic apparel, particularly on the women, who were slips of things and wore stilettos, body-glove dresses, their hair in dagger-like swatches framing their faces, and mascara like pitchforks.

But as usual, my buzzy mind settled its sting on matters of gender and the occasion served to remind me of some of the things I’d do differently for my own wedding. No fault of these guys – they were doing what many British couples do. Get married in a church, with a priest, promise not to stray, and to love one another with the help of, and through, God. (I can’t tell if the earthly carnal love of a couple is meant to aid the love of God or the other way round.) In fact, this service was more egalitarian than some I’ve seen – it was “husband and wife”, not “man and wife” and they made it “to love, honour and protect” on both sides. No mention of “obey” or even of responsibilities towards childbirth.

Ok, so here are some things I’d do differently. Joan and Peter [names have been changed]: you were divine. Looked tip top, were generous to have me, and threw a fabulously foodie party on an ambitious date. It coulda been anyone’s wedding that prompted these thoughts.

1. The White Dress. The white freaking dress. It’s still white! Why? The link with virginity persists but the vast majority of British brides are not virgins. A good film on this topic is Therese Shechter’s How To Lose Your Virginity, which explores just how weirdly obsessed with female virginity the world is, particularly and increasingly the American Christian world. People LOVE a bit of virginity on a woman; and since most Brits and urban Americans are fallen, it seems to be “well, let’s be virgins for the day”. But what does virginity mean? It is not about a woman’s choice to not have sex because she hasn’t felt like it. It is about her obeying the cardinal rule: be pure for your husband. Virginity is about being a clean sheet for a man to draw on. Which is why Caterina Migliorini was able to sell hers for $780,000 via online auction to fund school fees, and Rosie Reid, a lesbian, for (a rather paltry) £10,000 to help pay tuition fees back in 2004.

Most brides wear white, evoking purity. But they also wear it extremely figure hugging, or with large swathes of flesh on show (both contradictory and uncomfortable). Though many of my white-dress bridal friends have looked fabulous, many traditional dresses are either puffy marshmallows, evoking a (virginal) princess, or lacy embroidery evoking a Tudor (virginal) maiden, or (and I confess to liking these) smart business-casual cream silk evoking…a career woman who has had as much sex as she’d chaired meetings and led webinars.

My dress would be maroon brocade, and may well feature embroidery of my new favourite icons: Medieval dogs. It would be cleavage-proud, bolstered by a balcony bra (this the specific suggestion of a man I won’t name). Instead of a veil, I’d sport a spray of gravitation-defying red net, with roses and other red flowers shot through it. Like a harlot’s bonnet, perhaps.

The dress would be fairly loose. I am pretty well done with tight, uncomfortable clothes. Medieval dogs, but no medieval corsetry. Rather, it’d all be elasticated, so that bloating, wind, over-eating or over-heating on the day would cause no discomfort. The bride yesterday, who wore a hand-made white robe, not so different from Kate Middleton’s but with even more embroidery, looked hemmed in and baking hot by 10pm and people kept treading on her train.

Bridal shoes seem to fit this format of contradiction: white on one hand, slutty on the other (eg majorly high heeled – and no judgement on prostitution intended!). Mine might be little maroon trainers, or Grecian-styled maroon sandals. In any case: flat, and made out of cloth or soft leather.

2. The speeches. The freaking speeches! The bride is STILL muzzled or silenced or just silent (ok, it’s voluntary, she likes tradition, not all women want to hold forth at their weddings, yah di yah). But really?! It’s silly enough that the woman is “given away” in church by her father or other man. We can put that down to tradition which – if properly contained and thought through – can be accommodated, particularly when combined with incense and a sweet old 16th century church. But this jolly old “way things are” thing of the father of the bride, the groom and the best man laying claim to the talking just makes the “giving away” of the bride real, bringing it out of the church and into the booze-hall. The thing that gets me is that women are said to be less assertive than men, more self-deprecating, less likely to ask for raises, to stand up and say things that might evoke criticism…well, you wonder why! Maybe they should start standing up and talking at their own weddings.

At my wedding I’d hold forth – and how. I’d thank all and sundry and tell the groom he looked beautiful and the best man he looked lovely too. I’d talk about how I first met my husband, some funny incidents along the way, the courtship, and some humorous facts about my husband.

I’d then invite my mother to talk, then my father/brother, close friends of either sex and…if the groom wanted to say a few words, well, that’d be fine too. Not sure about a best man speech though. It’s all slightly done in the tone and tradition of “ahhhhh, old Dave has been domesticated! Who’d a thought. [nudge nudge wink] And now I’m going to talk about how funny it was getting drunk with him all those times, and the time that…and when we….”

3. Taking the husband’s name. Umm. Why? If you stop and think about it, there is no reason at all. It is, plain and simple, a vestige of times and laws when the man owned his wife and she could only take out money, or a credit card, with his permission, let alone divorce him. People say it’s for the children. Yes, it’s easier for a child to have one name- otherwise you’d have an exponential accumulation of hyphens. So why is it the man’s name? There is no reason on earth- no good reason- why the best name shouldn’t win. Perhaps even the best family. The man might hate his parents and prefer his wife’s family’s name to be continued, or honoured. He might have a crap name, and her a brilliant one. She might hate hers but need to keep it for professional reasons – ok, why not give the kids his name then, if it’s better.

That’s that. Long live the wedding. They are great things on many levels. But they could be even better, or at least mine would be, if the woman was recast as more than just the gift exchanged.


“I disagree with copulation without love” – Married Man, 29, 1949

2013 December 11
by Zoe Strimpel
Romance image blog

In 1949, regular British men in their 20s thought sex and love went together. Contemporary discourse seems to suggest otherwise….

It’s funny. Women are often associated with things that I find to be more applicable to men. For instance: a tendency towards drama, irrational behaviour and reasoning, jealousy, even hysteria and over-sensitivity to criticism.

One of these things is the concept of sexual liberalness. It’s said that men relish the idea of multiple sexual partners more than women and find monogamy more constraining than women. But a recent book called What Women Want by Daniel Bergner went some way towards showing a very different story. And indeed, when I think of the people I know who are keen on open relationships, they are women. The open relationships are vetoed by their partners who prefer monogamy and fear sharing.

But I’m not sure how fruitful or pleasant I find discussions that start from a point of looking for difference between men and women. Such differences have been used to justify unpardonable double standards, eg “men just can’t control themselves” versus “if your husband strays, maybe it’s your fault for having gained five pounds”. And these days, they serve more as a polarising device than a helpful one: we are angered by gender inequality, as we should be, but we are also obsessed with gender difference to a degree that I am not sure is helpful or representative of reality.

The “men versus women” stance is particularly unhelpful, I find, on the question of casual sex. A number of studies have shown contradictory things: men seek it, women avoid it; men regret not doing enough of it; women regret doing too much of it. A new study of American college kids has indicated that casual sex might be bad for both parties, psychologically.

Such studies indicate that the idea that men and women relate so differently to sex because of evolution is increasingly questionable. I’ve just been reading an article by Claire Langhamer, the queen of marriage and dating studies, called Adultery in Post War England. There was plenty of double standardry in attitudes to extra-marital affairs, but by and large, nobody was particularly shocked at it on either side. In fact, adultery was – despite being the central legal grounds for divorce until the Divorce Act in 1969 – not considered all that bad. It was understandable, at least.

More interestingly, both sexes reported thinking that extra-marital sex had to be judged on a case by case basis and that if you loved someone then that might explain sleeping with them outside marriage.

The talk today about young men wanting sex all the time and hating commitment, with womanly love as the enemy to the fun, strings-free life all young dudes desire, is usefully framed by the feedback of young men in the late 1940s. These men liked the idea of sex, but didn’t like the idea of sex without love, a notion that runs counter to the Mars-Venus paradigm that still governs much gender discourse today.

In 1949, a married assistant drainage officer, 28, told Mass Observation in answer to a question about whether sex should only take place in marriage: “I don’t think it matters if one is married or not. The parties however should feel that they are in love”. Another man, 29, said: “If people love each other and wish to copulate and for one reason or another are not married I see no reason why they should not. I disagree with copulation without love.”

Two things emerge here. One: only 60 years ago, one of the prevailing attitudes among 20 something men was that sex and love should go together. This shows that what we now call a woman-associated behaviour is either true for both sexes, or dependent on historical and social contingency. Two: adultery was not always the demon it is today. Ironically, in the pre Sexual Revolution days it was at its most accepted. In 1951, an sociologist called Geoffrey Gorer found that infidelity “was rarely perceived to be the worst ‘crime’ that a spouse could commit: only a minority of the sample believed that infidelity should automatically end a marriage” (in Gorer’s Exploring English Character, 1955; quote from C. Langhamer 2006, Adultery in Post War England). We should remember that every generalisation we make about men and women might either be a function of our times and places; or just – as Bergner wants to show and as I suspect – sometimes actually the wrong way round.

Through the looking glass…into the Oranienburger Arcotel Velvet

2013 December 1
by Zoe Strimpel
Arcotel blog

Get the binoculars: the hotel opposite our flat where people do not close the curtains very much.

One of the good things about the top-floor flat that my boyfriend and I are sharing in Berlin is its panoramic views. We look down on a kebab shop, an Apotheke (pharmacy), a tram line, traffic weaving round to Friedrichstrasse and, in the distance, the steaming top of a huge hospital called Charite.

We can also see into the 50 odd bedrooms of the Arcotel Velvet, which face us with embarrassing nakedness. Each room is a glass box, their street-facing walls entirely windows. The whole block of them look directly into our living room. 

It’s not just the rooms that are naked in their proximity and transparency. Many of their occupants are too. These occupants don’t draw the curtains.

One of the first things my boyfriend did when he got to the flat two months before me was to draw the blind on the window that looks into the hotel. He reported seeing one too many naked old men wandering around, as well as the making of a porn film. It appears that distaste at the former outweighed everything.

I thought he was being a bit prudish. What fun! Seeing 50 sets of strangers shag in different hotel rooms! Like in Sex and the City or a seasonal French comedy-drama!

So I kept peeking through the blind. And never saw more than some contemplative women in bras working on their laptops; or some men in boxers crawling into bed and turning off the lights.

Until yesterday. It took my father (my parents are visiting) to raise the blind. This is not as bad as it sounds. He had been left unattended in the flat for a few hours and likes light (a scant entity in Berlin in winter). He saw a closed blind and opened it, then continued reading about geological formations in the Galapagos.

A few hours later, my parents, Simon and I were  having tea and some linzertorte. Suddenly Simon said, “Oh god, here we go.”

We all looked. A naked man was mid-coitus with a naked woman; she was flopped backwards over the bed while he stood and thrusted. It was an extraordinary scene to see with your parents and your boyfriend.

“Well, that’s why there are so many people on the planet!” noted my mother, before returning to her cake.

Thank God the others were also genuine in their determination to continue as before. Nobody looked again, apart from me. I was riveted. Five, ten, 15 minutes would pass and they’d still be going strong. The man would be coming at her from behind; she’d be on top, hair flying back, back arched like in a movie; he’d be pleasuring her orally, then having at her missionary style. Repeat.

Hours seemed to pass and the lady was clearly not climaxing; or maybe she came immediately and he had to catch up, and in doing so give her several more orgasms. But something about it didn’t give me that impression. It looked like SUCH. HARD. WORK. To be fair, it was hard work; the man did not flag.

But I was riveted not because this seemed an erotic scene; but because it seemed so unerotic, so sad almost. It encapsulated the pressure of enjoyment under which modern sex-havers labour: YOU WILL CLIMAX. The reality is that after 30 minutes of hammering, a woman is not suddenly going to climax because of a switch in position. It’s gone. Even the most artful finger or mouth session may be futile as the area can become desensitised due to psychological as well as physical wear. Plus by then, both parties know the game is up and it’s become a job, at which failure reflects badly, TERRIBLY, on the modern lover, particularly the casual modern lover, who is meant to have all kinds of climaxory experiences at their fingertips; a portfolio for every situation.

On and on they went. This position, that. A break. Back he went. They seemed to stop, and lay side by side. But then he began trying again to pleasure her. He was giving it a good effort, I’ll hand him that. You could see him thinking: “How annoying that these days you have to make the woman have an orgasm too; still, needs must I guess!” while she was probably thinking the exact same.

Eventually I forgot to watch. But hours later I felt a bit depressed by what I’d seen. Not because I’d suddenly discovered myself to be a filthy old voyeur. But because I had seen a crystallisation of modern sex: an international city in Europe, 3:30pm, a November’s day in a minimalist hotel room, and I hadn’t liked it. It had seemed a real bore, a hollow shell, like I was watching porn. It was performance; it was rogering, hammering, it was get to the finish line sex at whatever cost. It made me uneasy about this great edifice of meaning that we call sex, and wonder if it really is just animals rutting after all. Simon noted that from a distance (in this case, about the width of Regent Street), people having sex really does look like animals having sex. (This is not an arousing thing to either of us, for the record.)

I don’t know for sure, obviously: they might have been lover reuniting and enjoying every second of their bodily contact. They might have met the night before. But it reminded me of something Germaine Greer said in the introduction to the  2007 Palladin edition of The Female Eunuch, about how no amount of the the masturbatory thrusting of polished limbs gives the kind of orgasm that emotional intimacy and physical frankness can.

These two were thrusting and their limbs were polished. In the end, I am sure they both got to the finish line. But the effort it took to get there didn’t look erotic, it looked exhausting.

Berlin is so cool, in a pro-life kind of way

2013 November 11
by Zoe Strimpel
Watertower, Mitte, Berlin. Perhaps Germany could put as much effort into its chronically backward birth control policies as it does its phallic landmarks

Television Tower, Mitte, Berlin. Perhaps Germany could put as much effort into its chronically backward birth control policies as it does its phallic landmarks

Berlin is one of the coolest cities in the world right now. Everyone – from Europe’s most creative (and only slightly failed) artists, to the serious philosopher scholars of Scandinavia, to the American college students on tour, to the Israelis seeking hipsterdom and family allowances at lesser prices – thinks so. They’re all here, after all. I’m here too, 78 years after my grandfather – now 93 and living in North London – left due to Nazi ascendance.

And great parts of it I like a great deal. I like the reflexive elegance, the enormous apartments, the minimalist shop windows; the parade of white-washed galleries; the cafes with velvet sofas, plum cakes and Florentine espresso machines. And let’s not forget the expert curation of past and present culture: the museums and classical music.

But Berlin, for all its flexibility and open-ness in dealing with its past, its creative approach to museums, and its great eye for sleek modern design, is profoundly retarded in one very important area – along with the rest of Germany. Namely: a woman’s right to choose – and be respected in that right.

With a degree of ignorant and indignant surprise, I bring you the news (news for me, anyway) that Germany’s birth control policies are among Europe’s least progressive. They are queasily paternal and – having lived in England (land of free, no-questions-asked abortions, full STD tests, and hassle free morning after pill acquisition) for so many years – I find them shocking. Oh, and sinister, for they hint at how thin the membrane is between the rights I take for granted in England, and the monstrous welter of patriarchal oppression only so recently put into shadow. Only 550 miles from London is a country that basically still thinks that when a condom breaks, a woman should apologise to God for her sins and meekly take her punishment.

The abortion policy in Christian Democratic Germany requires mandatory counselling, and a wait of at least three days between the counselling and the abortion, to ensure the woman doesn’t have the luxury of a short period of emotional discomfort. She must suffer, at the very least (and pay – abortions cost €300-€500 unless income falls below a certain extremely low level). But this is an improvement on the recent state of things: before 1992 in West Germany, a woman needed the “approval” of two doctors and could have an abortion only if her mental and physical health were “severely” threatened or she had been the victim of sexual violence. No doubt in both cases she’d have to be submitted to extensive examinations, physical and psychological, like something out of a Victorian clinic for lunatic women. I wouldn’t be the first to posit the notion that abortion law is made complex and obstructive just so doctors get the chance to poke around inside women. Historically, physical examinations have been a veritable obsession (see Michel Foucault and Elaine Showalter for more on this).

Now take the morning after pill which is not, in Germany, just a pill. It is, rather, a murder – one that can be authorised, to be sure, but not without extensive and humiliating hoop-jumping.

If a woman strolls into a pharmacy expecting the respect of Europe’s richest state to assume that the choice to pay £25 to take a pill that will disrupt her period and possibly her state of mind and stomach, simply because she happens to be the one who – out of the two – gets pregnant, is not taken with gay abandon, but rather the desire not to become a parent, than she has another thing coming. Unlike in Bulgaria, Ireland, Turkey, France, Scandinavia and Israel, she must get a prescription. Which is to say, permission. She must pay at least €100 for this prescription if she is uninsured, plus the €25 cost of the pill. If she doesn’t have a private doctor who can nip out and write her the prescription on short notice, she will have to miss work, or the best part of a weekend day (likely when she is emotionally distressed and hungover to hell), to go and sit in a hospital emergency room. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking as she waits for the paternal system of control over her body to work its way through to the pill itself. Every second the woman is made to find hospitals and clinics, and wait in emergency rooms for (usually male) doctors, the fetus grows. Which is ironic for a country that makes you do all this because it DOESN’T want to murder unborn babies.

I met a woman this morning who said she had her first child because of the difficulty of accessing the morning after pill in Berlin. She was told she’d need a physical examination (not true, in fairness) by a gynecologist (a grey area) and – since German pharmacists and hospital administrators insist that a three-day delay in taking the pill is FINE (it isn’t), this lady simply decided to wait till she went back to her homeland in Scandinavia to get it, a few days later. It was, against the counsel of Germany’s contraceptive gatekeepers, too late. Granted, she kept the child and seems happy with the decision (she’s had another one too) so it couldn’t have been all bad.

These rules are, obviously, linked to Christianity (one of the places German women can go to receive no doubt completely unbiased pre-abortion counselling is a church centre) and echo much of the weird bullshit surrounding contraception in the US. Thus it is no coincidence that abortion law was more punitive in West Germany (until 1992, the woman had to be either raped or suicidal to get one) than in Communist and therefore secular East Germany (abortion was legalised in 1974 in the GDR).

But Christianity isn’t the whole story. The birth control palaver is also a serious example of a set of attitudes that can be summed up by the ideas of “no” instead of “yes”, of “I am not authorised to…” instead of “let me see if…” and of “here are all the reasons why you cannot…” or “why it is not possible” rather than “hmm, let me get the manager”. But that’s for the next post. Let me now just say how glad I am to have been got used to the machinations one of the best contraceptive states on earth. It’s just too bad that on going just a few hundred miles away, one finds remnants of a world that one had lazily hoped gone from Western Europe.