Struggles of a Feminist: how to observe women’s bodies

I went to see a French Canadian circus the other week called Barbu. There were six acrobats, four men and two women. The men all had impressive beards, which played their part in one of the first acts as they roller-skated in a circle all holding onto each other’s beards. They started the show fully dressed, in hipster steampunk style clothing of fawn shirts and trousers, with cloth wrapped around their waists in an interesting imitation of half an old-fashioned corset. One of the women was also part of a roller-skating act at the beginning, dressed in a top and a little skirt. As she spun horizontally, only attached to a man on roller skates by a strap around her neck (wow) her skirt inevitably flew up showing modest black underwear. When she was back on her feet, the man made a show of pulling her skirt back into position for her with a flick. The second woman was dressed in stockings and suspenders, and a vest in an approximation of a corset – but not a corset, as that wouldn’t have given her the flexibility to do the extraordinary things she did, weaving her body in and out of a large ring suspended six feet above the floor.

The differences in the male and female outfits gave me the familiar feminist rage of wishing that women didn’t always have to showcase their bodies even while doing something that required such elaborate skill and training. These differences can also be seen now at the Olympics, with men and women competing in the same sport given quite different outfits to wear. I’m sure that many of the decisions behind these outfits come from the women themselves, wearing things that make them feel able to do their jobs to the best of their ability. But I still wonder why most women playing tennis continue to wear little skirts when shorts would have the benefit of not flying up all the time. Or why female track athletes are often exposing their midriffs when their male counterparts aren’t. And, most famously, why female beach volleyball players are more or less in bikinis when the men are in shorts and t-shirts. Apparently the women are no longer required to wear these bikinis, but the fact that they were once is ridiculous, and unfortunately has led to a view for some of female beach volleyball being more soft porn than it is sport. I myself struggle to get past this idea, and to sit and watch them play without imagining the guffawing objectifying language I’ve heard thrown at the players in the past. ***Update: I watched the men’s Olympic diving last night, so I now feel I need to add a bit about their outfits. Were they always that tiny? On some men they literally barely covered the tops of their buttocks. I’m sure it’s for streamlining but I actually found it very disconcerting. It doesn’t affect my point in this blog, but I did want to acknowledge that the men are also sometimes in teeny tiny outfits!***

This circus and now the Olympics is making me ask a lot of questions of the way I view female bodies. I was good and ready in my irritation at this circus for having only the women semi-dressed – but then the men came out in only their underwear. What was I supposed to think now?! I could no longer be righteously feminist-ly annoyed, I had to acknowledge that there appeared to be equality here. I did still notice differences in the way the men and the women were presented, and how they held themselves. The women, who were also now in plain black crop tops and shorts underwear, acted quite differently; one woman was confident but quietly so, while the other was aggressively sexual, strutting and staring out at the crowd and, for me, feeling quite confrontational. It felt like she was looking at all the straight men in the audience, daring them to want her, and at the same time looking at all the straight women (particularly those there with a straight man) and saying well your bloke is looking at me and wanting me right now, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The men, by contrast, were quite playful in their nudity. There were some homoerotic jokes, and a man came on to do his act wearing a large disco ball round his body, covering from the tops of his thighs to just below his arms. On a woman I think it would have been titillating, just covering her breasts and arse and suggesting there was nothing underneath, but on the man it was mostly comical.

Watching them all and noticing my reactions, I began to feel quite uncomfortable. Some of it was plain old-fashioned jealousy, not wanting my partner to be sitting next to me and lusting after women on a stage. But then, you may ask, didn’t I find the men attractive? Wasn’t I lusting after them a little? Honestly: not really. They were fine male specimens, but they were just male bodies. I was detached from them and sitting in a crowded public space, sitting next to someone I loved: I felt no particular need or urge to find them attractive or to think about it much one way or the other. I wondered to myself if that’s the way my partner felt as well, and I struggled to believe it could be so. And I realised that I couldn’t see the women in the same way: their bodies for me were bound up with too many other thoughts and other ideas, and I couldn’t see them as non-sexual beings. Not in the sense that I wanted to sleep with them myself – this blog isn’t me not so subtly coming out as a lesbian – but because I kept seeing them as direct competition to myself. And I realised that this is a huge problem.

I have found something very similar with the Olympics. While I can watch the men play and appreciate their form and see that yes, they are attractive, it gives me no pause for thought at all. I am far more interested in what they can do and how skilled they are at whatever sport they are participating in. But with the women, I struggle. I judge. I compare. I frequently feel wanting. I feel the urge to make comments on their prettiness, how much make-up they are wearing; I assess the size of different parts of their bodies and how well-balanced they are. I am very envious of their power and strength, but at the same time I feel slightly relieved if I don’t see them as being objectively sexually attractive. I hate myself for this because I know it is entirely irrelevant, and something that these women themselves are probably worried about people thinking and I don’t want to be somebody else adding to that. Most of them are very attractive, in their looks and their bodies and their abilities, and then I hate myself again for feeling worn down and a little sad after watching some Olympic events. I’ll sit next to my partner and fret about whether he is judging me against what he’s seeing on the screen. I find myself seeking reassurance and getting needy and being a bit of a pain in the ass.

I also realised when I was watching the circus that I will downplay the women’s abilities, just as so many people do to women, often without even realising it. The woman was spinning in the air hanging on a hoop with her ankle casually by her ear and I found myself thinking, well that’s not that difficult. OF COURSE IT FUCKING IS. But I felt angry and threatened by her because she was wearing stocking and suspenders and I couldn’t disconnect my admiration of her performance from thinking that men would be watching her and wanting her. It is toxic, this feeling of needing to be admired and approved of to the extent that if another woman at that moment is being looked at with awe and, perhaps, some desire, that that automatically lessens our own attractiveness and our own worth. This is particularly true of situations when your partner might be the one looking at someone else, but I can remember instances of it being true even when the men weren’t even people I would want to sleep with. There was a boy at school when I was about 17 who was a friend of a friend of mine. He was a bit strange and he frequently made me uncomfortable with various remarks. I had absolutely no desire to be with him at all. But he had a habit of putting his hands up our jumpers at the back to warm them when it was cold, and I would feel jealous if he always did it to my friends and not to me. Even though I simultaneously hated him doing it to me because his hands were fucking cold and he freaked me out more than a little bit. What the hell was that? Why did I feel that competition even with someone I wasn’t interested in?

Happily I think it’s something I’ve grown out of to some extent. But I still see it in this need to be always found attractive, and not just attractive but the MOST attractive. Which is understandable to some extent but it’s also pretty ridiculous. It’s impossible to go through life only finding one person attractive all the time, and it doesn’t have to be threatening if your partner looks at someone on a stage or on a screen and thinks they’re beautiful. It doesn’t even have to be threatening if they’re someone who they know personally. Obviously there are lines here and if your partner finds other people so attractive that they can’t help themselves sleeping with them, then that’s a whole different story. But all I’m talking about is looking at a person and thinking they are nice to look at. We all do it and I hate that I feel this competitive, insecure, poisonous feeling when I judge myself against someone and feel less attractive and crap as a result.

So I am trying to work on seeing women’s bodies as just that, bodies, there to do a job and achieve some incredible things and not just something for people to have sex with. Of course, I’ve had a lot of help seeing women’s bodies this way, from all advertising and many films and music videos, and everywhere else that women are presented as props, sexual props, without personalities and voices and abilities beyond being sexual. I just didn’t realise how much I had internalised it myself, with other women. And that makes me really wonder about how I look at myself. I know that I am not always happy with my figure because it doesn’t balance out the way that the women’s bodies do on the posters – if I want a proper hourglass, I need a padded bra (and SO WHAT) – but I never thought so baldly about how that was connected to me thinking of myself as just a sexual being. Just a thing for people to have sex with. Which is crazy, when you think about it, because the majority of my time is and always will be spent not having sex. So why should I have to be judging myself on that all the time? On being attractive and being found attractive and on looking as close to the women in advertising and on the screen as possible?

So I am fighting it. I wrote recently about getting more into sport. God damn it’s hard to keep up when you work full-time, commute two hours a day and often sleep poorly but I started again this morning after a week or so off, and I will push harder to continue it as it makes such a difference to my mood. Feeling the strength in your body is so much fun. I’ve had a recurrent dream since I was young about being powerless – physically powerless; I’ll try to punch someone who has made me angry or who is threatening me in the dream and there will be no strength in my arm. I try but I make no impact. I feel like that can carry over into my day sometimes, and exercising and feeling the power running through my muscles makes me feel more powerful in other areas too. Power: the ability to act or produce an effect. It’s what is often denied to women in all kinds of public spaces; they are without agency and without power, unable to produce an effect except to make men want to possess their bodies. I am going to try very hard to uncouple my automatic thoughts of viewing women in this way, as competition, and to see them as more, to see them as what they are: powerful and strong and not trying to be a threat to me. They’re just human bodies, just women, not a yardstick I need to measure myself against.

I would like to thank the Guilty Feminist podcast and my fellow Guilty Feminists on the facebook page for helping me to think through these things, to see them for what they are and also to write this blog explaining how much this affects me, when as a feminist I shouldn’t be thinking these things (although I will try not to beat myself up about it if I do, because society has taught me to think this way). If you haven’t yet listened to the Guilty Feminist, you absolutely should. It’s hilarious, thought-provoking and marvellous. And the facebook page is one of the best things on the internet.