Reflecting on a Year in Feminism: The Issues, Progress and Improvement

BRICKS contributing writer Emily McMullin reflects on the year in feminism: the issues, the progress, and the room for improvement.

Photography by Tean Roberts for BRICKS, The Manifesto Issue, No.4

It’s no secret that being a woman in the 21st century comes with a significant amount of pressure and expectations. You could go as far as to say that life as a modern young woman is brutal and unforgiving. If anyone is unconvinced of this, a brief perusal of the magazine aisle in their local supermarket should serve as confirmation.

The media, in all of its forms, is one of the biggest perpetrators of the expectations and double standards that dominate women’s lives and identities today, and the rapid growth of the Internet and social media over the last decade or so has made it more powerful and ruthless than ever before. The media, in particular its representation of women and their bodies, is unreservedly aggressive and intrusive, to the point where it is now almost impossible to escape it.

We have begun to challenge these industries and beauty standards and fight back against the relentless objectification and oppression that we are subjected to, day in, day out.

Emily McMullin

The media would have us believe that women are in fact real-life Barbie dolls. Tanned, shiny, and perfectly proportioned with no pubic hair, imperfections or bodily functions (it’s true – women don’t poo!). It isn’t an exaggeration to say that society treats women like toys, our main purpose being as a source of pleasure and entertainment, whether that be sexually, visually, or in a number of other ways, most not involving much participation on our part.We are told, through images as well as (if not more so than) words that women are only worthy and desirable in one very specific form – a form that meets the harsh homogenised beauty standards that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. These beauty standards are of course completely flawed – neither realistic nor consistent.

The overriding concept of women as submissive sex objects hasn’t shifted much in decades, but the definition of the ‘perfect’ body changes fairly frequently: a few years ago the focus was on being skinny – size zero and so on – whereas now we should apparently be striving for a small waist and flat stomach paired with disproportionately large breasts and buttocks à la Kim Kardashian. As a result of the extensive editing that images frequently undergo, the ‘perfect’ body, whatever the current trends dictate it to be, is also for the most part a fabrication. Such unattainable beauty standards are inevitably a hugely profitable business; they create and fuel insecurities in women who then invest a significant amount of time, money and energy in their appearance, striving to reach these standards. Women’s bodies are constantly being exploited by almost all corporate industries – film, music, food, to name but a few – in a variety of ways, some more obvious than others. We are a hugely fruitful and effective tool, so it comes as no surprise that when women try to reclaim their bodies, they are shut down.

Recently however, there has been a shift, and 2015 was the year that women decided they had really had enough of being shut down. We have begun to challenge these industries and beauty standards and fight back against the relentless objectification and oppression that we are subjected to, day in, day out. This revolt has taken many forms and is being driven by women of all ages, races, and backgrounds across the world.

Campaigns in the UK include No More Page Three and #EndTamponTax, both of which speak for themselves and have received widespread public attention and support. The petition to ‘Stop taxing periods’ was signed by over 300,000 people, resulting in a debate in parliament and inspiring sister campaigns in several other countries, including France where campaigners succeeded in getting the tax reduced from 20% to 5%, the same as the UK.

Women also stood up to body-shaming in a huge way last year, not just with regard to their appearance but also their bodily functions. The issue, or non-issue as many see it, of breastfeeding hit the headlines after women reported being asked to leave public places or ‘put it away’ when feeding their children. The global #FreeTheNipple movement challenges this kind of discrimination against women and their breasts, as well as the prohibition of female nipples in the media, despite bare breasts appearing in a national newspaper on a daily basis.  Artist Ruki Kaur made a statement about society’s attitude to certain aspects of women’s bodies by posting a photo of a woman with a patch of period blood on her trousers on Instagram, who proved her point by swiftly deleting the image as they do with all ‘inappropriate’ images of the female body.

‘Plus-size’ became a bit of a buzzword, with a wider range of women and body types being selected for the catwalk and brands making their clothes more accessible for all women. While many aren’t happy with the fashion industry’s current definition of ‘plus-size’, it is the nonetheless a step in the right direction and is fuelling open discussions about ‘fatphobia’ and body shaming.

We are reclaiming our bodies and our identities, and it is a refreshing and empowering movement to be a part of.

Emily McMullin

One of the most significant stands against the unrealistic beauty standards assigned to women has come from celebrities themselves, publicly shaming the industry for editing images of them and highlighting the false nature of social media. Kate Winslet, for example, negotiated a clause in her latest contract with L’Oreal which states that photos of her cannot be retouched, saying that she felt “a responsibility to the younger generation of women”. Other high-profile figures including Khloe Kardashian and Lucy Meckleburgh released un-edited images of themselves from magazine shoots in a bid to silence critics who said that they had been heavily photoshopped and did not look like that in real life. In October Australian model and social media star Essena O’Neill publicly and dramatically quit Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, claiming that despite her seemingly ‘perfect’ life, she was, in fact, miserable. The narcissistic and misleading nature of social media, in particular the photo-based applications like Instagram which enable a lot of editing and offer an idealistic snapshot of people’s lives, have been heavily criticised and mocked, with some posting unglamorous photos of themselves in a bid to reflect ‘real’ life.

Women everywhere are joining forces and rejecting the policing of our bodies that has been imposed on us for so long, publicly embracing all parts of themselves – pubic hair, cellulite, stretch marks and all – and celebrating the diversity and strength of our bodies. There is a growing appetite for the representation of real women, a move away from the conventional standards of beauty to redefine what it means to be beautiful.  Women are not only realising that they truly are more than a number on the scales and that their value is not determined by how sexy they look, but believing it too. We are reclaiming our bodies and our identities, and it is a refreshing and empowering movement to be a part of. Watch this space…

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