Tuesday 9 March 2010

Speech on Body Image for International Women's Day.

I'm still up, so it's still International Women's day. Here's the speech I made at today's launch of the Real Women campaign in Portcullis house, alongside Susie Orbach, which was more than a little intimidating. The campaign aims to bring together people who are working on body image, beauty fashion and feminism into a broader political movement, and has specific policy objectives like kitemarking of heavily airbrushed images in advertising. I wrote this speech in about half an hour, but it came from the heart more than many things that I've had more time to think about.

Hope you enjoy - and Happy International Women's Day

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I understand that I've been invited here to speak to you today because of my experiences with anorexia nervosa when I was younger, and because of my ongoing struggle with Body Dysmorphic Disorder. And I welcome that sentiment - too much contemporary policymaking, even good feminist policymaking, talks about young women and to young women without listening to young women.

So, I could talk to you about the deep pain of stuggling to feed oneself. I could talk to you about the years and years I spent fighting the condition, the battle to overcome the cues that even very intelligent young women pick up from parents, peers and the overculture about how young women ought to look and behave. I could tell you about the deep gouges I had to physically slice into my personal paradigm to persuade myself, against every message I was recieving, that it was okay to take up space, that it was okay to have physical and personal flaws, that the actual weight of my humanity as a woman was not repulsive or aberrant, that I did not have to starve myself and punish myself in order to be acceptable. I could tell you how I almost died, how I jeopardised my future and my education, how I broke my family's heart and set an incredibly bad example for my two younger sisters. And I could tell you how a culture that assaults us at every turn with images of impossibly thin, impossibly perfect, impossibly white, impossibly beautiful women made that process of recovery harder and more painful at every turn.

But I don't want to talk about that to the exclusion of all else. You all know, because you've read melodramatic personal stories in the papers, about how anorexia, bulima and other eating disorders work, about the hurt they cause to young women, their families and friends. Much of the rhetoric around eating disorders and hyper-sexualisation seems to patronise or even fetishise young women as impossibly vain, helpless victims who can't even look at one picture of a stick-thin model without rushing to the nearest bog to vomit up their breakfast. It's not that simple, and sensationalisting the victims of this sick culture of airbrushed femininity risks watering down the real message. Focusing on our victimhood risks turning the focus away from where our political energies should be directed - at the narrow coffin of corporate womanhood and the way it inveigles itself into every aspect of our society, at the unassailable market logic of brutal, homogenised, white, heterosexual femininity pushed by as a political obstacle rather than as a fact of life.

Imagine if it were young men whose plasticised, airbrushed, blandly sexual images you saw everywhere around you, imagine if it were young men who were starving themselves, sicknening themselves, neglecting their futures and their studies, paying doctors to butcher their bodies, bleaching their skin to make themselves resemble the relentless consensus of white, hetoronormative corporate gender fascism. Imagine if it were young men who understood that in order to get and keep a job they had to starve and bleach and punish themselves into a sick image of perfection, to literally shrink every aspect of their personhood, imagine if it were men who the market were complicit in erasing. We would be filling the streets in protest. There would be speeches in the House of Commons every day until change came. We would have to acknowledge that this is an issue of political urgency, and not a secret, private shame.

This campaign to get advertisers to label airbrushing is of vital importance. As a socialist I instinctively distrust the politics of symbolism, but this campaign does more than just send a message - it creates a precedent that attacks on women's personhood are political, that body image and beauty fascism are political, and attempts to erase real women and our real lives are something that Westminster should be addressing. When the deputy leader of the party in government is ridiculed for her quite normal appearance in the press, when she is insulted by being nominated for the 'rear of the year' campaign, sending a message that even powerful women can be contextualised and dismissed within a framework of patriarchal sexual and physical judgement, it's time for women in politics to take a stand. It's time for women and men with seniority and influence to take a stand on behalf of the selfhood of the next generation of leaders, politicians, entrepreneurs, homemakers, mothers, athletes and artists. It's time to take a stand, and it starts right here, with a campaign to tell advertisers and others with financial clout that there are things that matter more than money.

Fighting the sick, damaging influence of the corporate imagining of womanhood on the lives of real women might seem like an impossible task. When I've talked about this campaign over the past few weeks, I've been met by a resigned cynicism - you'll never get advertisers to stop selling products off the back of this endless parade of diseased, plastic woman-meat, it would be nice if you could, but you can't fight the market. The autonomous logic of misogynist capitalism can only be resisted at a personal, private level, and if individual girls can't resist it, that means we're not strong enough. I say: bollocks to that. For three reasons.

The first is that we are living in a society which is beginning to analyse the unstoppable logic of free-market identity politics for the first time. Particularly for young people, the recession has allowed us to dare to imagine that the market can't solve all our problems, that it can and should be questioned, that something isn't great just because people are prepared to pay for it.

The second is that there is a new energy for feminist activity. Women are beginning to remember that our failure to have it all and be it all is not a private shame but a political statement- we are beginning to wake up and feel the weight of our chains, some old, some new, and imagine lines of resistance.

And the third reason is quite simple. This is International Women's Day. One hundred years ago, when the first International Women's Day took place, the socialists who convened the conference could not imagine a world where women would be allowed to vote and to participate at all levels of the economy, a world where women would not be the property of their husbands, where we would be able, in most civilised places in the world, to access abortion, contraception and sexual healthcare. Women have won incredible victories in the past century against impossible odds, and today of all days we should remember that those victories are possible. Today of all days we should honour the memories and achievements of our radical foremothers by remembering that it's okay to dream big, that it's okay to demand change that smaller, more frightened people wouldn't even dare to envision, because it's been done before and we can do it again.

That energy of feminist politics, inspired by the example of courageous women from previous decades, is what gave me the courage to recover from anorexia. Choosing to say fuck everything I'd been told about how good little girls should be, choosing to start to live again at the point of collapse, is the hardest thing I will ever have to do in my life, far harder than the small task of changing the world. The energy of feminist politics reminds us that women are powerful, that we are vital, that our political concerns have relevance at the highest levels of government, and that if we stay brave, and stay clever, and remember how far we have come, there's nothing we can't do.

Thank you.


You're not really allowed to say 'Socialist' in the House of Commons, but other than that the speech went down fairly well. I'll be talking more about this campaign as it progresses. Exciting times are ahead :)


  1. Very nice speech.

    This might be slightly off-topic, and poss.splitting hairs, but I think in this country, a reasonable proportion (if not majority) of women aren't bleaching their skin, but sun-bedding and dyeing it *darker*. It's not about having to aspire to an "impossibly white" template, but an impossibly mediterranean *shade* of white, whichever direction one's natural skin-tone is approaching it from.

  2. Is airbrushing all you want to change?

  3. It's more acceptable to say 'fuck' in the House of Commons than 'socialist'? Can't work out whether that's a good thing or a bad...

  4. This is indescribably awesome, and so are you. :-)

  5. A friend of mine posted on a social networking site about how she had decided against buying some peanuts in a shop because they were stapled to a cut-out of a topless woman. A total stranger saw fit to send her this message:

    "Subject: PRUDE!

    "I take my clothes off for art, for freedom, for money. If you wish to stop eating peanuts- good- you clearly need to lose some weight- you then maybe wouldn't be so uptight about your body-and others who are proud to show off theirs!"

    Then the stranger blocked my friend so she could ignore her reply. Maybe the stranger realised belatedly that she had scored a bit of an own goal!

  6. That's an incredibly powerful speech.

    "You're not really allowed to say 'Socialist' in the House of Commons..."

    Tee-hee, shame you couldn't have slipped in a few "Comrades" as well ; )

  7. Good speech, very thoughtful. The two words which stand out to me are "impossibleness" and "plastic." I do feel there is a chronic problem with presenting pipedreams as achieveable realities for society in general.

    Like for example, we live in a generation brainwashed into believing that anything is within their grip as long as they just want it enough and try hard enough. Therefore people who fail to succeed somehow deserve that. Somebody who, for example, is obese is seen as so deliberately self-indulgent its ALL THEIR OWN fault and they get what they deserve.

    This doesn't stop at body image and I find it horrific to encounter young women who believe the spiel put out by bogus "life coaches" who are taking their hard earned cash to tell them that they just need to believe in themselves, and actually, forget the study or long apprenticeships - you can be a big success, rich and successful, and find love, as long as you really want it and work hard enough.

    I think nowhere is this more obvious than in what one of my favourite economists calls "property porn." Property of all types is being fetishised in the same way as bodies are fetishised, in order to provide massive levels of unearned income for speculators who borrowed on the same "sexed up" valuations. Its just a hunch to me, but the same problem - the idea of achieved perfection - ultimately the capitalist dream of perfect, endless, effortless profit from some "perfect" asset which just spits money on your request.

    What I find most worrying is the inability of this hyper-capitalist ideology to account for failure, and cruel punishment which it demands.

    Keep up the great writing, really enjoying it.

  8. You're getting talked about on the Vanilla Rose blog site. fame!

  9. "Women are beginning to remember that our failure to have it all and be it all is not a private shame but a political statement"

    Not sure if I understand this correctly. Is it the aim of feminism for women to have it all and be it all? If so, it's an impossible aim and therefore there is no shame in failing to attain it. But perhaps this is the point you were trying to make.

  10. If 'having it all' is defined (as it so often is in the media) as feeling entitled to both a family and a career - i.e. that to which many men aspire without being seen as hubristic or deluded - then yes, I think it is a fairly reasonable feminist goal. Whether or not it is achievable for most women in society as it is set up now is another question, but I fail to see why it should be inherently unattainable for women when it remains unremarkable for men to 'juggle' career and family.


  11. Yo Laurie, check this ad out - it's your revenge, I imagine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uEtmQIRTYlk

  12. Well done with that reader's letter in today's Evening Standard.

  13. Penny,

    I have read your writings over the past few months and noticed a gradual improvement in content and tone.

    Then came this one.......... it was fabulous.

    Print it out, frame it and hang it on the loo wall. It is really good.

    Well done.

  14. what is the actual title of this speech?
    I am redoing it for a declamation in a National Forensics Tournament, and I need the title.
    You can email me @ bren_20_dirks@hotmail.com.


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