Bear with all the panty puns as I have just returned from the compulsory middle class birthday experience otherwise known as going to an underwear exhibit at the V & A and now I want to do some thon(kin)g out loud. Because at face value ‘Undressed’ was simply a showcase of everything ever sold in Ann Summers from corsets to Spanx via Juicy Couture, however once inside you realise it represents the looming question which has divided feminists for centuries:
Sexualisation: Empowering or Degrading?
Full of history students (recognisable by the manic scribbling on Pukka Pads and huge undereye circles), old people (aka the ones pointing to the 1890s whale bone bodices and mumbling ‘oh we used to wear them didn’t we Vera? The youth of today don’t appreciate what we went through’ between mouthfuls of Soreen fruit loaf) and pervs (like me) who just want to creep on some undies and maybe even gather some inspo for my next pair- everyone was commenting on this key question, regardless of which side of the bikini line they fell. Are thongs anti-progressive? Do body sculpting tights purely appeal to the male gaze? (Why the feck were swimsuits ever made of out jersey? Or maybe I’m the only one wondering that. Probably more for the dressmakers to answer than the freedom fighters of the world.) Is the little cheer that my mum and I did as we walked past the display reading ‘the feminists decided the bra was a symbol of oppression and are often seen without it’ supporting some kind of distasteful, (bum) cheeky view of women? Would it be better to go back to the days when petticoats landed at the floor to prevent any ‘obscene’ sights?
What was clear from the timeline was that as western women become socially/politically emancipated, the underwear gets lesser and the sexualisation increases. Obviously, at first this is due to the male gaze- women wear less to please men- hence why the typical woman is rather in the kitchen cooking or in the kitchen on her knees with her MAC-ed mouth open and her hands rather up her skirt or unzipping her off the shoulder Missguided bodycon dress, all captured rather perfectly on the cover of FHM. This is very clearly how ‘men’ (obvs not all of them but enough to make this the norm) wanted us to look. In fact, now might be a great time to read one of my favourite book extracts of all time: the cool girl speech from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.
But what I find it strange about this modern wave of sexualisation, i.e. when Kim K’s got nothing to wear or the Blurred Lines music video, is that it massively appeals to essentially exactly what men want. Obviously, it’s supposed to represent women having control over their bodies and finally using nudity for themselves in a way that’s previously only been used to objectify them and I love the ambition to control your own body/work your own ship/drive your own train (whatever the metaphor is) however it’s important to note the effect that’s having. I mean, if the editor of Page 3 has been sexualising women through their toplessness for his whole career and then suddenly kick-ass feminista women are lining up to whip their tops off, it doesn’t really seem like a punishment. I can’t imagine all those misogynistic Kanye supporters suddenly scrolling through their Instagram feeds like ‘Oh no! That girl I catcalled outside the post office last year has got nothing to wear! This is the complete opposite of what I wanted.’ It feels like, instead of thinking about sexuality and how it should be presented, we’ve rushed to the nearest Kurt Geiger advert, thought hmm SEX SELLS (or sex cells if you’re in a biology lesson) and then copied that.
Now as someone who originally came from a very ‘I don’t think women and sexualised should ever be in the same sentence let’s wrap ourselves in plastic bags and sing the first verse of Firework until boobs go away’ view, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking this over and have done a bit of a U-turn over the years. Ultimately, now I realise that this isn’t about suppressing female sexuality/nudity because we’ve tried that in pretty much every decade so far and it’s failed to work. This is about how it’s done. And I think it can be transformed with a single feature:
Except from maybe one picture of Miley Cyrus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a naked and happy woman. Seriously, how are women supposed to sexually emancipate themselves and others if they look bloody miserable in every picture? One of the reasons why current sexualisation is so oppressive is because of the sultry face that’s paired with it, making it look largely uncomfortable and completely not fun. What’s the point in that? There are thought to be huge problems with female sexuality, so the fact the western world is tackling them is amazing, we just need to find the most empowering way to do it. Women should be allowed to express themselves freely without (excessive) judgement; it just might be beneficial to consider ways to do this which don’t benefit the people who’ve previously oppressed us. Plus, it’s actually really hard to bite your lip attractively, so EL James let’s stop pretending that’s an achievable thing.
Teamales, where do you stand on this? Empowering, degrading, neither, both, almost one, none of the other- comment below as I’d love to see your thoughts. Plus if you get the chance to see the Undressed exhibit I would really recommend.