An opinion piece on how the female body is edited, manipulated and weaponised to sell, and rarely at rest to exist.
by Esther Bancroft
I was always struck by the reference in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) to Eve. It seems that the creation story remains in popular culture as the decisive moment that woman secured her status as less than man because she rebelled. For she, formed from his rib, took the apple and bit. It seems that the reasons for Eve’s transgression, for man’s first disobedience and the existence of sin, was because a woman dared to satiate herself: her hunger and her curiosity. She rejected the hierarchy of Eden that she had been born into, and for that she was punished.
What interested me most whilst reading Paradise Lost was the characterization of Eve; her hair is described by Milton as ‘Dishhevell’d … in wanton ringlets’ (Book 4, I. 304) as if her unkemptness alludes to an internal wrongdoing. Milton weaves the destructive nature of woman into his lexicon: ‘Hee for God only, shee for God in him’ seems like an archaic version of the inane citation ‘behind every great man is a great woman’. But why can’t there just be ‘great woman’: why is the status of woman always measured against that of man; why are her boundaries made elastic and the man’s so infuriatingly uncompromising?
'the female body is rarely at rest to exist. In fact, women are told to hate their bodies'
The female body is edited, manipulated and weaponised to sell. From the translation of a text which thus condemned females by confirming sin to be a problem innate to woman, to Protein World’s 2015 marketing goading ‘Are you Beach Body ready?’, the female body is rarely at rest to exist. In fact, women are told to hate their bodies - the vessels of their intelligence, happiness, laughter, the means by which they move through life, their receptor of joy, of pain. Women are told the very skin they live in is not enough, that they are not enough, and this lie is okay because it is wrapped in a pastel-coloured box and sold by plastic celebrities who label it ‘detox tea’. Because being hunched over a toilet emptying the contents of your stomach is the definition of living.
John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1964) is such a foundational text on the female form and the way in which a woman’s body is probed, sold and seen, that I think it should be compulsory reading. Images are extremely powerful, especially in the modern world where they are given perhaps too much currency; as Berger writes, ‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak’. He stated that ‘to be born a woman is to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men’. The image of the woman is designed to flatter the man - right back to the creation story where Adam is given Eve as a part of himself. How can women not feel the need to fixate on their appearance when, in Berger’s words, ‘men survey women before treating them’: when your attractiveness deems whether you will be taken seriously. Imagine not inviting a man to speak because he wore the wrong shirt to the meeting, or dismiss him because he forgot to shave his beard. I can’t think of a female equivalent to the ‘rugged’ look which is deemed to be so nomadic and attractive.
As a woman it feels necessary to streamline your movement through the world by making prominent the features which men label attractive, and stifling the other traits as a result. The control of the way in which women are seen, and the way in which they see themselves is the ultimate monopoly. For by convincing a woman from birth that she is not enough, she will try to become the thing which does not exist: the image of woman as created by man. It is uncomfortable to read Eve call Adam her ‘Author’ and ‘Disposer’ (Book 4, I. 633) but the words are loaded with a venom which endures today. Even more so as capitalism has created a society so fuelled by marketing that it is often difficult to peel oneself from the onslaught of advertising which is so carefully bound up in our notions of selfdom.
'...the female body was divorced from itself: it became a product.'
In 1915, Gillette created the first razor for women, which in 1917 became the Milady Décolleté. It was certainly not the first hair-removal treatment for women - women have been plucking and preening themselves since Ancient Egyptian times using everything from beeswax to seashells - however it was a watershed moment for the shift in the public perception of the physical female body in relation to images made of it. From this point in particular, the female body was divorced from itself: it became a product. In the early twentieth-century a fashion magazine ran an ad featuring a woman with bare armpits, the first of its kind. Fast-forward to the present day and I can’t think of a single advert in recent history which features a woman shaving legs with hair on them. Almost always she glides the razor over bronzed skin in apparent ecstasy, marking an overt negligence of the fact that shaving is little short of pilates in the bath with razor blades. Other products which are marketed for women and yet take care not to disgust the men who might, God forbid, come across them in the aisles of Boots or in their daytime TV advert breaks, are sanitary towels and tampons. They are themselves wrapped in euphemism, labelled cloyingly as ‘feminine products’ or ‘items’. And we still shove these taboos up our sleeves or in pockets lest the male see the tampon and combust. Because I actually can’t think of what would happen if a man was confronted with a sanitary towel that would justify the secrecy with which women navigate periods. Would they burn? This needs to be investigated.
What frustrates me is the way in which the female body remains central to investigations of the female self. In current society progress is gradually being made as brands catch on to the need for inclusivity; Rihanna’s underwear line Savage X Fenty is fantastic for its promotion of all body types – to quote Rihanna in an interview with T magazine (2019), ‘you wear what looks good on you and that’s it’. Calvin Klein’s own campaigns have even become more diverse, and it is not unusual now to see a whole range of body types on clothing ads; even Victoria Secret are attempting to play catch up with their Spring 2020 ‘Body by Victoria’ range featuring transgender and plus sized models. Yet, although this is movement in the right direction, the VS campaign in particular seems to be a form of virtue signalling, especially considering that the brand has drastically gone out of fashion due to its hyper-sexualisation of extremely specific body types. Their senior executive Ed Razek was forced to quit last year after dismissing the featuring of transgender models in his show as ‘a fantasy’. So despite the body positivity movement gaining some traction, a lot of progression is cosmetic rather than genuine. A marketing strategy, no matter how apparently diverse or forward-thinking, is still a strategy. Consider also the rise of Instagram influencers who make a living from posting pictures of themselves in fast-fashion items, exploiting a market of impressionable young minds who have a disposable income. Similarly, Greenwashing has become more widespread with co-operations making outrageous claims of environmentally friendly practice whilst doing the complete opposite. An notable example is Nestle Waters Canada’s 2008 campaign claiming that ‘bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world’. Fast-forward to 2020 where we have now learnt that 90% of all plastic ever created has not been recycled, and even more chillingly that by 2050 plastic will outnumber fish. In both instances, engagement with the customer to generate profit trumps any sort of meaningful activity by corporations.
'Which is why exposing flaws in other women sometimes excites us, because we feel that the existence of their imperfections render us by contrast more beautiful'
The Kardashians are an obvious example of exploiting a market of impressionable young girls: they are a group of women whose bodies have formed much of their careers. We should praise them at least for using their bodies to their own advantage: after all, in the immortal words of Beyoncé on her track ‘Formation’, ‘best revenge is your paper’. Yet they are extremely adept at convincing their select following that the images they create of themselves are anything but fake - and it would be disingenuous of them to say that they don’t understand the severe impact this has upon their global audience.
I can’t count the number of times, for want of something actually useful to do, I have also fallen prey to consuming ‘11 worst Kardashian and Jenner photo editing fails of all time’. We all know they’re edited, but what I find most uncomfortable is that it still takes me having to sift through their ‘editing fails’ to know it to be true. I catch myself being elated upon discovering that an inch of body fat was cut out, that their skin is not as baby smooth as it appears. And here lies the worst problem: women are not only conditioned to hate their own bodies, but to hate the bodies of other women too. Which is why exposing flaws in other women sometimes excites us, because we feel that the existence of their imperfections render us by contrast more beautiful and more desired. If you take anything from this article, let it be this: the existence of a beautiful woman does not diminish your own beauty. Instead, actively try and bolster other women when you scroll through your socials or walk down the street. Pick out something you admire in the people you pass and you will become happier for it - I can’t tell you how drained I become when despising myself for glorifying other women’s faults, as if they do anything to negate my own. Crucially, is having a tiny waist and pronounced bum the benchmark for happiness? I really hope not.
I recently discovered Danae Mercer (@danaemercer), a freelance travel writer and health journalist who posts pictures of her body in the poses we see rife on Instagram, each with different lighting to expose the way in which these photos do not reveal the whole truth about our bodies. Sometimes it does take another person to expose their flaws for you to accept yours – but from then it is important that you put in the work to realise that these aren’t flaws at all. One of these so-called ‘flaws’ is cellulite. The ‘condition’ was made mainstream by Vogue in 1968 and we are still being sold treatments which don’t actually work. Cellulite is the dimpling of the skin due to interaction between the tissue below the surface of the skin and the layer of fat below it. That’s all it is – and no matter your body type, most people have it. Let’s stop letting social media shape trends for our bodies, and remind ourselves that influencers are part of an industry designed to make us feel bad, in order to sell. Just because it comes in a relatable package doesn’t do anything for its veracity.
'Sunbathing is not just a blissful hour of lolling in the sun but a ‘Prime Bronzing Opportunity’ as, like on a spit, it is necessary to ‘dutifully strip; lie; rotate and repeat […] and women’s work is never done’'
I want to end with some lyrical words on female form from some of my favourite poems. Vicki Feaver’s Marigolds beautifully unpicks the tradition of giving flowers to women; she laments the gifting of ‘stiff red roses, carnations/the shades of bridesmaid’s dresses,/almost sapless flowers’. Women should not be represented by delicate, breakable flowers which fade and bend in the wind, but by blooms suffused with the energy of being a woman: ‘flowers that burst/from tight, explosive buds, rayed/like the sun’. Glorious rich colours of flowers ‘that remind us/we are killers, can tear the heads/off men’s shoulders’, living things which remind us how fierce and obstinate and beautiful we are. My editor, and founder of imprint Kezia Rice teases out many of the issues discussed in this essay in her poem Bad Girlfriend Material. She unpicks the pressures upon women to be perfect, and frames the poem with the narrator removing a wart from her body. The wart represents the part of the natural body labelled as ‘imperfect’ and the frenzied cycle of self-editing that comes when faced with such criticism. Rice emphasises the idea that women have to prime and edit themselves - like a document constantly rewritten and reformed. Sunbathing is not just a blissful hour of lolling in the sun but a ‘Prime Bronzing Opportunity’ as, like on a spit, it is necessary to ‘dutifully strip; lie; rotate and repeat […] and women’s work is never done’. The poem encompasses the way in which women are vessels for futurity: for self-modification. It also reinforces the idea that a perfect woman is a fictive character in a narrative society has traced for women.
Moniza Alvi negotiates the space provided to her as a female in her poem I Would Like to be a Dot in a Painting by Miro. She writes herself as being ‘barely distinguishable from other dots,/it’s true, but quite uniquely placed’. There is something comforting in this description of forming part of a wondrous whole. But despite being one of many dots in the painting, there is still room for individuality: ‘the fact that I’m not a perfect circle,/makes me more interesting in this world’. In fact, in Alvi’s words, the differences that make us distinguishable from the masses will mean ‘people will stare forever -’. In her poem of the same name, Stevie Smith wrote ‘how cruel is the story of Eve’ for the way in which it made misogyny inherent in society. Our lives don’t begin once we have made ourselves palatable to others: we are done atoning for the apparent sin it is to be ‘woman’. Instead we must manifest our own liberation using the potential with which Alvi ends her poem: ‘so here I am, on the edge of animation,/a dream, a dance, a fantastic construction’. We are all on the cusp of life, each a fantastic construction, each on the verge of being, if we only give ourselves space to let our bodies live.
Esther Bancroft is a writer and is about to begin an MA in English Literature at Bristol University. She loves reading - particularly sea-based novels - and dabbles in painting and playing the piano in her spare time. Follow @theeverydaymagazine, @afacelike.thunder and @theidiotfilm to see more of her work. Esther has previously written for imprint with her article 'Activism through Art'.