Sunday 25 March 2018

Is fashion really a feminism issue?

Parents have to deal with sexualised young women like Miley Cyrus.
Parents have to deal with sexualised young women like Miley Cyrus.
Miley Cyrus
Miley with former fiance Liam Hemsworth

Lisa Armstrong

I never went near a feminist group when I was a student.

I'm not even sure there were any at Bristol University in the Eighties. It's not that we weren't grateful to the long line of sisters, from Emmeline to Germaine, who had fought on our behalf. I just think we felt the battle had been won, even if the war itself was going to take a little longer.

Looking back, we can see the casual sexism as thick as cigarette smoke - but it was so pervasive most of us didn't even notice it.

Today's sexism takes such grotesque forms you'd have to be a stone not to clock it. It was the stunningly crass decision this autumn term, for instance, of a nightclub in Leeds (let's not dignify them with a name check) to promote itself with a video featuring a "jailbait" cage and staff asking male students how they were going to "violate" a fresher that pushed my daughter over the edge into the arms of Fem Soc.

She's not alone. In the past couple of years there has been a slow but steady rising of female hackles everywhere, from Saudia Arabia to the Daily Mail .

There's just one obstacle: feminism's image. Many of my daughters' friends are wary of branding themselves as feminists because of that hoary old whiff of hairy armpits and roasted bra. They're worried they won't seem feminine, she says, if they attach an ist to the condition. Plus ça change .

The issue is that while 21st-century feminists no longer wear boiler suits (unless they're from Zara), today's teens and 20 somethings, male and female, have such a hyper-sexualised (utterly hairless) idea of how women should look that anything less than a full-on Kardashian commitment to false eyelashes and push-em-up-and-over-bras makes some of them feel as though they've handed in their female genes.

It's very easy to blame Fashion for what has happened to perceptions of femininity in the years since power suits were the female armour rather than Tit-Tape and Bum Lifts. Maybe that blame is even justified.

Shoving young girls out onto the catwalk in random states of nudity or cynically explicit clothes is grossly exploitative. The fervid determination of certain fashion magazines - usually the so-called edgy ones - to parade images that would be deemed pornographic in other contexts is equally soul-sapping.

"Yes, but context is precisely why they're not pornographic", runs the usual argument. These publications are often produced largely by women for women. As if that absolved everyone. Yet I know for a fact that some of the younger models feel coerced into doing nude pictures.

It's artistic, they're told, high fashion, something to show the grand-children; it couldn't be further from page 3. Oh, and they won't get booked again if they don't.

There are plenty of nudes that could claim to be celebratory and beautiful - though there's nothing lovely about a 16-year-old feeling exploited. But the accessories - the bloody knives, the whips, the thigh-high boots, the bondage corsets and the on-all-fours poses - are highly questionable. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous, as are claims that these images exist within an aesthetic vacuum.

They don't. Cumulatively they ramp up notions of what's feminine and sensuous until, oddly, nothing is.

So here we are, in an artificially sweaty swamp where S&M is viewed as fashion styling, and "porn-chic" has seeped so far into mainstream culture that tiny girls wear high heels and halter necks and hoards of teenagers go out in clothes that used to be the preserve of prostitutes. It's fashion, isn't it? Ergo, it can't be pornographic.

The really whacked-out aspect of all this is that often the women promoting these images - the editors, the model and photographer agents, the show producers - dress like nuns.

Naturally no one complains. We're all meant to take a libertarian view of anything that might conceivably be boundary-pushing, otherwise we're reactionary prudes. In this re-imagining of the world, Miley Cyrus's twerking is a post-feminist reverse manipulation of the music industry.

Kate Moss posing for Playboy at 40 is a Go Girl Moment, and dressing like a hooker at 16 or 60 is totally within our rights.

Maybe it is. That doesn't make it the smart thing to do. And not everything that a young girl says is empowering really is.

So while feminism sorts out its image make-over (and it is, slowly) those of us with daughters should perhaps get used to taking an unpopular stand. It may be retro, but we could start by telling them that actually, they really can't go out dressed like that.

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