By Angela Phillips
May 28, 2015
Professor of Journalism and contributor to Spare Rib, Angela Phillips, analyses the relationship between women's perceptions of themselves and the way they are seen by others, exploring the tension between the private and the public.
The jarring contradiction between how women feel and how they are seen, in advertising and the media, was one of the spurs both to the development of second wave feminism and ofSpare Rib magazine. This is, in part, because the Women’s Liberation Movement was the child, not merely of the civil rights movements that were rising up across the world but also of the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s.
The 1960s brought many important new freedoms in the UK and elsewhere. Laws restricting abortion and homosexuality were relaxed, contraception was improved, changes in education meant that a wave of young people were leaving home, not into marriage as their parents had done, but to newly opened universities where they could live a life of unprecedented independence. For the first time opportunity and technology combined so that sexual activity could be enjoyed without the ever-present fear of pregnancy.
But this freedom brought with it a different kind of oppression. If liberal capitalist society had given young women the right to take their clothes off in private, the unspoken assumption seemed to be that it had the right to use those unclothed bodies in public, for the purpose of selling the goods that keep the wheels of liberal capitalism turning. This sense of the personal becoming public property was well articulated in the introduction to an article written by Jill Nichols and Pat Moan:
I am alone in the underground waiting for a train. All around me are huge images of female parts: giant rubbery peach tone breasts, wet lips, denim bums, damp looking stomachs, long legs in high heels…I don’t know where to look that doesn’t make me feel angry and vulnerable. A man comes down the tunnel and looks me up and down. All these ads are like his gang – telling him I am a cunt-thing, a leg-thing, a breast-thing and that I am waiting for him. He is psyched up to think that he has a right to me.
In a world that is papered with such images how do women find images that they can own? How indeed do they separate what they want to project of themselves, from the ideas that are projected onto them by others? This contradiction had a particular piquancy at this time. To take part in the sexual revolution seemed to require women to cede control of their bodies and be entirely available to all comers. Sexual freedom, it turned out, really meant freedom for men. Women’s Liberation, on the other hand, was about demanding freedom on equal terms. Spare Rib became the place where not only the theory but the practice of body-ownership was debated, as in this account, by Karen Durbin, about cutting her hair short at the end of an affair: ‘It feels sexless to have so little hair,’ she writes, ‘And defiant. As if I am thumbing my nose at the whole idea of trying to be sexy.’
The early editions of Spare Rib were full of first person accounts of ‘body issues’ written with naivety, humour and a freshness and directness that went straight to the heart of our concerns. There was little in terms of feminist academic literature to reference, and most of those who were writing in Spare Rib in the earliest days had never read the little that did exist. These were women speaking direct from their experience. They wrote about their breasts and their weight, about clothes and make-up. It was an on-going conversation, which certainly at the beginning, was as much a journey of exploration for writers as for readers.
Rosie Parker was one of the earliest members of the Spare Rib collective. She and I discovered that we both lived in a constant battle with food – something I found almost impossible to believe of Rosie who seemed to represent everything I wanted to look like but would never manage. So we decided to write about it. Back in the early 1970s, before the publication of Fat is a Feminist Issue, by Susie Orbach, when anorexia was a term familiar only to doctors, we saw our individual battle with our bodies as merely an uncomplicated lack of will-power. Talking to each other and all the women we interviewed was a revelation. I don’t know what effect our feature had on our readers – but writing it really did change my life. I have never dieted since and don’t own a set of scales.
In that article we interviewed the experts and let them speak first in the style favoured by the mainstream press; but gradually, over time, the voices of ordinary women (not merely the authors) started to slip out from behind the ‘experts’. A little more than a year later, a whole issue was devoted to anorexia and here the voices of women interviewed speak out eloquently. Said one: ‘it was like living in a tin, with anorexia as the tin and a great blanket of unhappiness inside.’
Spare Rib was where the conversation happened, but the contributors came from far and wide. They contributed through the letters page, through the section called ‘Tooth and Nail’, where readers were encouraged to send in examples of particularly egregious sexism and through the news pages and reviews section where their efforts in other arenas were reported. Reading through back editions, an item called ‘Knickers for Sale’ caught my eye. It was a review of a joint production by staff and students of Sydenham School for Girls in South London, focussing on body image and stereotyping. It was a remarkable reminder of how fast the ideas of feminism travelled from the fringe to the mainstream, but also a reminder of how little has changed. As websites such as The Vagenda and Everyday Sexism, make it clear, young women today are still living with distorted reflections of their own bodies and still suffering the consequences.
Spare Rib magazine issue 027
Review of a school theatre production, ‘Knickers for Sale’, which examines the role of women in society.
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