Updated: Aug 13, 2021
This article loosely follows my previous article Women as Fantasies & History of Catcalling (Why it's not a Compliment) In my previous article I mentioned that women were historically inferior to men. Now in 2021, many centuries later and after a few waves of feminism, things are slowly improving and people address these problems. However, women and men are still not as equal as they should be. There is a lot of areas, from everyday life, to work life, to expectations of what women and men should and shouldn’t be like, and of course the area of the body.
In terms of work life I have done some research on one specific industry – the photography industry. I have found some statistics and different women’s experiences revealing an interesting fact-photo/creative industry is still a boy’s club.
Photographer Jill Greenberg in her TED talk explains that 92% of adverts are shot by men, as are 85% of magazine covers, despite the fact that 85% of consumer purchases are made by women. These are US statistics, however the situation elsewhere is probably not dramatically better. The reason is not that women are not interested in photography – they are. Greenberg argues that 80% of all students graduating from art and photography are women. However, in the real world of commercial photography women are not getting the same opportunities. Even campaigns like MeToo, or a story in New York Times magazine in 2015 about gender discrimination in the film business were shot by men.
Greenberg goes on explaining why we should care:
“Those who are paid to create the images which shape our culture have a real power. Photographers create image propaganda. Commercial photographers direct, pose, frame and edit one image out of hundreds, even thousands. We choose the casting, wardrobe, hair and makeup and click the shutter capturing an already idealized moment, and we decide which one is the best. Each subtle decision affects how powerful the image is. So what happens when our views of the world are shaped by only a male lens? Then we are only getting the perspective and the biases of half the population, since almost every image we are surrounded by has been filtered through a man's eye and a man's mind.” (Greenberg, 2018)
In the global report on the State of News Photography from 2018, 69% of women photographers said that they faced discrimination in the workplace. When further asked about obstacles to success, 54% of them mentioned sexism, 53% industry stereotypes or practices, and 49% lack of opportunities for women.
When the photographer Cybele Malinowski started her career as a photo assistant, she was told to do 100 push-ups a day – in order to match the strength of a man. (I understand that this is a physically demanding job, but I believe that we should be able to make equipment that would adapt to strength of each individual and not the other way around). Later on when her career took off, and she became a photographer she would be often mistaken by the clients for a stylist or a photo assistant, whilst the real assistant (who was a man) would be assumed to be the photographer.
Speaking of inequality in terms of the body, there is one particular thing that frustrates me to the bone – the inequality of male and female boobs. What I don’t quite understand is; why are women restricted (although it’s not against the law in the UK) to have their tops off, and are looked down at if they do so? Especially bearing in mind that inherently it is the same body part (even though women’s are fatter) that men have too! The answer is simple – they have been sexualised.
Fig. 1: Scott Metzger, n.d. Viewing boobs as an object of sexual desire is culturally shaped. Their primary and natural function is to feed babies. Let’s have a look at the history of naked female boobs. Venus of Willendorf is the oldest (25 000 years old) carving of a woman. She was the idealised woman of those times and her huge breasts and hips represented health and fertility.
Fig. 2: Venus of Willendorf, discovered 1908, near Willendorf, by Josef Szombathy Nudity has traditionally been the social norm for both men and women in some hunter-gatherer cultures in warm climates and female breasts were associated with motherhood, not sexuality. However, in civilised societies nudity became more and more rare as nakedness became associated with lower rank. In Ancient Greece, nudity is celebrated and associated with the perfection of the gods. However, this applies to men only. The masculine nudity, was associated with triumph, glory, and moral excellence and it was completely desexualised. In contrast, female nudity was a taboo and extremely frowned upon. Women’s social rank was really low in those days and only a little higher than the status of a slave. The female nudity was deemed shameful and degrading. And with the increasing sense of shame came sexualisation. Aphrodite of Knidos was an Ancient Greek sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite created by Praxiteles around the 4th century BCE. It is the first life-sized representation of the nude female form in Greek history, and it is an alternative to the male heroic nudity. It depict the goddess Aphrodite preparing for her bath and modestly covering the pubic area, which at the same time draws the attention to the upper part of her body. The sculpture of Aphrodite established proportions for the female nude.
Fig. 3: The Victorious Youth, c. 310 BCE Fig. 4: Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos, 4th century BCE
I could carry on and go through the whole history of nudity including the Middle Ages and the rise of Christianity, Renaissance, Victorian era, etc. because it’s all very interesting. But I would like to jump back in the presence. Nowadays it is still totally common for women to have their breasts uncovered in many indigenous tribes. In a 1951 study of 191 cultures, anthropologist Clellan Ford and ethologist Frank Beach reported that breasts were considered sexually important to men in 13 of those cultures.
Fig. 5: Woman of Himba of northern Namibia Fig. 6: Woman of Hamar of southern Ethiopia Cultural anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, describes in her book Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives telling her friends from Mali about sexual foreplay involving boobs. What was their response? "In any case, they regarded it as unnatural, perverted behaviour, and found it difficult to believe that men would become sexually aroused by women's breasts, or that women would find such activities pleasurable." (Dettwyler, 1995) She goes on saying: "Obviously, humans can learn to view breasts as sexually attractive.”
Humans can learn to view anything as sexually attractive. Female foot binding in China, which started in the 10th century and lasted until 1945, was a cultural practice of breaking and binding the feet to change the shape and size, because small feet were considered attractive. This practice was also strongly fetishised. It symbolised a girl’s willingness to obey and it limited the mobility and power of females. Other cultures around the world have eroticised hair, ankles, necks, bums, lips etc.
Mursi women – a tribe in Ethiopia – are famous for their wooden lip plates, which is a symbol of beauty. In some other tribes (in some parts of Africa and Thailand), women extend the length of their necks by using neck rings. The reason is a cultural identity associated with beauty.
What we find beautiful and sexy is shaped by culture and it’s changeable. It is not natural or biological.
Fig. 7: Foot binding in China Fig. 8: Lip plate, Mursi woman Fig. 9: Neck rings, A Kayan Lahwi woman
For women in the Western culture the boobs are mostly associated with sex and porn. One might argue that boobs are an erogenous zone, but that applies to both – men and women. However, it is way more acceptable for a man to be shirtless than for a woman to be topless.
I see it as a problem is not because I would like to go out with bare boobs, but because I don’t have the option. I have been born with boobs like anybody else on this planet, but unlike men I have been taught to hide them because they can arouse others (men). But I’m not responsible for people’s reaction to my body, people bear responsibility for their own reactions. This goes back to victim blaming.
It is sad to see little girls with no boobs having to already wear bikini tops, because they have been taught that one day the boobs will get bigger and become an object of someone’s sexual desire. But just like all other traditions connected to "beauty" that I have mentioned above; is it really about beauty and sexuality or rather having control over women?
The Badass Breastfeeder says on her blog:
„It is not my fault that my body has been oversexualized. Oversexualizing women’s bodies is about control, not about sex. Legislating my body as a result fuels the idea that my body is not mine. My body is mine. It is not a crime.“
(The Badass Breastfeeder)
As I mentioned earlier the female breasts are primarily and naturally for feeding babies, and seeing them as an object of desire is culturally shaped. However, this book Growing Up For Boys by Alex Frith says something different;
„Girls have breasts for two reasons - feeding babies and looking grown-up and attractive.“
Fig. 10: Alex Frith, Growing Up For Boys, 2013
Of course, young boys have quite likely already figured out that boobs are for ogling – from music videos, adult magazines, films, porn, etc. However, shouldn’t a book that has the intention to educate do a better job than teaching young boys about gender stereotypes and introducing them to sexism?
This is just one example to demonstrate what is going on in our culture. Young girls are growing up in an environment where they get taught that having pretty boobs is is a very important aspect of their lives. In other words, girls who have been born with small boobs are going to learn that they are not pretty enough. Is there any better excuse for plastic surgeries to come up with transplants as a solution? No wonder why women spend big sums of money to have their boobs done. One could argue that they are adult and this is clearly their decision. Yes, but if you are surrounded by a world that dictates what you should be like, and you know nothing else because there is no alternative that teaches you the opposite – be what you want to be – then it is difficult to see that you are the one who has a control over your decisions – not the world, not the culture.
But do we really? And how much control do we have in terms of our own choices as women? And what consequences will there be if we decide to take the control?
To be specific, there were these two stories in the recent news I found very contradicting.
The first story was about two girls who were asked to leave Wetherspoons as their tops were considered too revealing and hence why inappropriate (it was 28 degree). The exact reason given by the manager was: „That’s like a man being topless, and we’ve been kicking topless men out all day". In my opinion the manager is comparing pears and apples, because comparing a woman with her top on with a shirtless man is just not the same thing. And where did this manager gain the knowledge of the exact equivalent of a shirtless man? The girls shared their story with the UK news and got shamed on social media. The common reaction of people was that they should be ashamed of themselves.
Fig. 11: Women who were asked to leave Wetherspoon, 2021
This is not to make a conclusion whether their choice of clothing was right or wrong. I’m only questioning the people’s reaction to two women wearing clothes that’s purchasable in many clothing stores. Does anybody question the brand for making and selling these tops?
The second story was about a Norwegian handball team that was fined £1300 for wearing shorts and not bikini bottoms at a European Championship match. The women were protesting against the official handball rules that state that women must wear bikinis and men tops and shorts. Simply put, the team of these women wanted to feel comfortable when playing, which is hard to achieve if their bum is exposed to the world.
Fig. 12: Women who were fined £1300 for wearing shorts
I would like to question the word „inappropriate“ because here we have two stories about policing the female body and about inappropriate clothes. In the first story the women were shamed for wearing clothes that makes them a target of ogling. And in the second story the women were shamed for not wanting to wear clothes that would make them a target of ogling. These are two contradicting stories, but they share the same message about the female body and about the women’s world that differs from the world of men. Men and female bodies are not treated equally – the female bodies are almost always associated with women’s sexuality and hence why disciplined, oppressed and controlled by others.
Somebody said to me, that in order to make the situation equal, men need to be sexualised too in our culture. I have some news – that has already happened. Men are more and more objectified in ads, films, video games, etc. where the attention is mainly focused on big muscles. I don’t want to turn my back on the fact that this has a negative effect on men and young boys, however there is a difference between the objectification of men and women. Anita Sarkeesian explains in her film Women as a Background Decoration why equal opportunity of sexual objectification is not the solution to this problem.
„Men may be sexual too, but they can also be anything else, they are not defined by or reduced to their sexuality and their sexuality is not thought of as something existing chiefly for the pleasure of others.”
What is the solution then? We are surrounded by sex in our everyday lives, even outside of our intimate lives – through media. Sut Jhally said in his film Dreamworld 3: Sex and Power in Music Videos:
„The real issue is not that there is too much discussion about sex but that there is not enough.“
In my opinion it would help if there was more sex and gender education in schools and other institutions, where they would teach kids (and other people) that there is also a real world outside of Pornland, where women and men treat each other with respect. Where kids would learn that sexual pleasure is equally important for both men and women. Where they would learn, that consent is important, and no is no. Where young boys would learn that girls might be weaker physically but not mentally, and they both are equally capable of achieving their goals. And where they would learn that they both deserve the same opportunities.
I think the situation is better nowadays and people speak about these issues more. There are also centres/charities focused on equality of men and women.
Also spreading awareness as an individual could help. This is what I’m hoping for with my project.
Bibliography Figures: Fig. 1: https://www.metzgercartoons.com/single-panels.html Fig. 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Willendorf Fig. 3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_sculpture Fig. 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite_of_Knidos Fig. 5 and 6: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toplessness Fig. 7: https://www.thesun.co.uk/fabulous/3574437/horrific-photographs-show-the-centuries-old-chinese-practise-of-foot-binding-that-breaks-bones-and-agonisingly-mutilates-the-toes-lotus-shape/ Fig. 8: https://www.icdo.at/the-mursi-tribe-and-lip-plates/ Fig. 9: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kayan_people_(Myanmar) Fig. 10: https://www.mhpbooks.com/girls-have-breasts-to-look-attractive-and-grown-up-claims-childrens-book-written-for-boys/ Fig. 11: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/15277862/young-pals-refused-drinks-wetherspoons-cleavage-crop-tops-inappropriate/ Fig. 12: https://news.sky.com/story/norways-beach-handball-team-fined-1-300-for-wearing-shorts-not-bikini-bottoms-12360215 Text: Greenberg, Jill, TEDxWabashCollege, The Female Lens, 2018 https://www.ted.com/talks/jill_greenberg_the_female_lens_jan_2_2018 Statistics: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/07/women-battling-sexism-in-photography-a-picture-essay https://www.worldpressphoto.org/getmedia/4f811d9d-ebc7-4b0b-a417-f119f6c49a15/the_state_of_news_photography_2018.pdf Sexism in photography: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/mar/07/women-battling-sexism-in-photography-a-picture-essay History of nudity and Aphrodite of Knidos: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_nudity https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite_of_Knidos Study about sexuality of breasts: https://inews.co.uk/opinion/columnists/tbt-a-brief-history-of-breasts-for-pleasure-88036 Dettwyler, Katherine, Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, 1995 Other cultural traditions: https://www.britannica.com/science/footbinding https://www.icdo.at/the-mursi-tribe-and-lip-plates/ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kayan_people_(Myanmar) https://inews.co.uk/opinion/columnists/tbt-a-brief-history-of-breasts-for-pleasure-88036 The Badass Breastfeeder, My Body is not a Crime https://www.thebadassbreastfeeder.com/the-double-standard-bar-part-1-my-body-is-not-a-crime/ Frith, Alex, Growing Up For Boys, 2013 News: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/15277862/young-pals-refused-drinks-wetherspoons-cleavage-crop-tops-inappropriate/ https://news.sky.com/story/norways-beach-handball-team-fined-1-300-for-wearing-shorts-not-bikini-bottoms-12360215 Sarkeesian, Anita, Women as a Background Decoration, 2014 https://feministfrequency.com/video/women-as-background-decoration-tropes-vs-women/ Jhally, Sut, Dreamworld 3: Sex and Power in Music Videos, 2007