Following our recent article ‘Real Women Have Curves‘, Kate McManus shares her thoughts on body confidence and  ‘real women’, and why she finds the label unhelpful.

The issue of shape and size have always been almost exclusively a ‘women’s problem’. In a culture obsessed with the myth of female beauty, a woman’s appearance, body and sexuality are all wrongly thought to be public property, available for all to gaze upon, evaluate and  comment upon.

Just recently, my mother complimented me on a newly purchased jumper that I was wearing for the first time, saying that it suited me. ‘I know,’ I replied - not intentionally, simply responding naturally - ‘I really like it.’ Instantly, my brother picked me up on the comment and accused me of being stuck up - ‘I know?!’ he mocked, verbally wondering how I could be so glaringly arrogant as to admit I liked the way an item of clothing fitted me. I instantly felt a wave of guilt, ashamed of having admitted so candidly, so innocently, in the privacy of my own home, such an arrogant thought. Now, however, I can’t understand why I felt guilty, or more to the point, why my brother felt I ought to feel so - surely the whole concept of choice in the clothing industry is so that we can chose things we like?  Why would I ever buy or wear something that didn’t look good on me, and why should I be made to feel ashamed to admit that something does? I was honestly surprised that my own brother – even half-jokingly - expected me to wander around blissfully ignorant of my appearance as though it were something whose value could only be decided and assigned by men.

This tendency to comment on women’s appearance - one brought to light brilliantly in the critical responses to Samantha Brick‘s recent assertion of her beauty - has resulted in one of my personal pet peeves. It is an abysmally self-congratulating comment and yet its acceptability in society is gaining force, used slyly to destabilise women’s perspective of their appearance. It is the ludicrous suggestion that ‘Real Women have Curves’.

I am not, of course, critiquing those women who have curves - but I’m not certain that those who make that comment aren’t shrewdly trying to. No, instead, it is that tiny, niggling, crafty little ‘real’ that starts the statement with which I take issue.

 In Ways of Seeing, John Berger famously said that:

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves”.

Similarly, my problem with the ‘real women’ comment runs twofold:

1. The men who say it.

2. The women who say it.

To the men who make this comment - first of all, how terribly condescending. Yes, women have curves; thank you suggesting that they, too, belong to their gender as if they didn’t know already and needed you to tell them. The comment is awfully self-congratulatory: by thinking yourself to be progressive by including curvy women as women, it merely betrays the inherent judgement of women and their bodies by thinking it warrants stating at all. (This very clever Mitchell and Webb sketch will illustrate the point more lucidly than I can if you replace ‘Good Samaritan’ with ‘Curvy woman’…)

As to women who make this comment, I can’t help but think that this is self-defeating. This ‘real women’ comment divides us in two ways - firstly, it suggests that women with curves aren’t just women but something different and apart from them due to that sneaky ‘real’ which quantifies their womanhood. Secondly, it suggests that women who lack curves aren’t even women at all - their whole femininity has been placed solely on their shape and thus stripped from them.

Obviously this statement has as much substance as the ludicrous suggestion that real men wear pink. Yet unlike a  fashion choice this really is potentially harmful: by segregating women due to their shape and suggesting that womanhood balances near-impossibly  on curves  or lack of them means those women who dare to acknowledge confidence with their bodies are treated as suspect. They’re not playing the game.

Whilst I applaud the media in beginning to be more accepting to women of a larger size, I can’t help but feel that this is creating a bit of a backlash against smaller sized women. To be seen as thin is not to be seen as a real woman, somehow lacking in whatever it is that grants curvier women their undefined ‘reality’. I’ll be clear that I am in no way advocating size zero or the ridiculous trend of ill-looking fashion models, but it’s something else to treat a woman’s naturally skinny physique as some kind of political stance against these past few years of progression, especially when doing it under the guise of promoting being a ‘real woman’. As we’ve discovered, some women have curves, many don’t; some have life-saving mastectomies. My point is simply that shape and femininity have no correlation and we shouldn’t be deceived into thinking they do.

This became particularly poignant upon recently discovering French website Boobstagram to which women upload photographs of their cleavage to raise awareness of breast cancer. I’m all for body confidence and flaunting what you’ve got where and however you may wish, but it’s this disguised - I’m going to say it! - objectification of women’s bodies and their association to womanhood that bothers me. As though you weren’t aware, women have cancer in other parts of their body, too - brain cancer, gallbladder cancer, even rectal cancer - yet none of these seem to be celebrated with sites dedicated to photographs of said body parts or have people posting their bra colour on Facebook in the name of them. And then of course we have those high street shops that seem unable to fathom the idea that not every woman wants her boobs to be ‘two cup sizes larger’. Maybe,  just maybe, some of us are happy with our boobs the way they are. And maybe, just maybe, some of us don’t wish to be judged because of it.

Image: Andrew Crawshaw on Flickr

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