Monica Bellucci, older women, sexuality and the media

The sexuality of older people is frequently denigrated and neglected. This is particularly true for women. People of all genders are taught a dogma of youth=beauty and marketed a multitude of products to fend off the effects of time. But whilst men become “distinguished” with age, women are touted botox in a bid to keep their partners from trading them in. 54-year-old George Clooney is still considered a sex symbol, Hugh Hefner surrounds himself with bikini-clad bunny girls and it’s not uncommon for women to talk lustily of “salt and pepper hair” and be-suited “silver foxes”. Where is our celebration of older women? Of grey hairs, lines around the eyes, ageing breast tissue and hot flushes? Women are encouraged to continue to remain looking youthful, or risk being deemed “ugly” and discarded. Meanwhile, men are taught to only see attractiveness in the young. Where does this leave us?

Ever see this gender-swapped?

Ever see this gender-swapped with an older woman?

Much has been made of the casting of Monica Bellucci in the latest Bond film, Spectre. The choice of the 51-year-old actress as a Bond Girl (or should that be, Bond Woman), a pedestal of sexual attractiveness, has been lauded as “ground-breaking” and a “triumph” for feminism. Should it really shock us that Bond (played by Daniel Craig, aged 47) has finally been cast alongside a woman of his own age? We think little of him being paired with women in their 20s and 30s, as is common for the franchise. Bellucci, who can hardly be described as“old”, holds all of the assets commonly associated with “beauty”. She is famed for looking younger than her years and an ex-model, so perhaps her casting will not give great comfort to other middle-aged women. The film makes a small step for representation, but the furore around the issue reminds us of how few examples we have of older women portrayed as “sexy” in film.

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Daniel Craig (47), with “older” Bellucci (51) and Seydoux (30)

Narrow and negative views of women’s sexuality are punishing at any age. Younger women struggle with Madonna/Whore attitudes, which both encourage them to be “sexy” and then shame them for it. As women age, they quickly become stereotyped as “desperate” and predatory “cougars” if they choose to be visibly sexual or become entirely invisible. Although some women may prefer younger men, fantasies of the sexually experienced “older women” (a la The Graduate) aren’t helpful if they’re the only image of sexuality in older women we see. In a depressing excerpt in porn documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” a 25 year old performer describes progressing quickly from being cast as a “teen” to a “MILF”. These fantasies aren’t only damaging to women, who should be given opportunities to explore and express their sexuality as they age as more than a vehicle for a younger man’s naughty adventures. Women who sexually abuse young people are frequently given lesser sentences than their male equivalents and attitudes that boys would be “lucky” to receive such attention abound. Women don’t sexually deactivate at the age of 35, with some women describing feeling more sexual at this age than when they were younger. But all too often this part of women’s lives is silenced and we see little of it represented in the world around us.

ruth

Six Feet Under’s Ruth, a great image of a sexually active older woman

Ideas about age and attractiveness are multi-faceted and can’t be entirely blamed on the media. However, greater representation of older women (and not just middle-aged) as attractive and viable sexual partners rather than the butt of jokes or pornographic fantasies can go some way to expand our narrow terms of reference. One particularly good example I’m reminded of is the character Ruth Fisher in HBO’s Six Feet Under. The character is widowed at the start of the series and begins to explore her sexuality, taking a number of lovers. Although there are jokes to her storyline, Ruth’s love life isn’t a humorous sideline and is treated seriously. Ruth’s adult children struggle with her newfound life, but her sexuality is shown in an honest and unedited manner. In one shot, she is shown naked, grey hair falling on her shoulders, lying in bed with her partner, also an older man. How often do we see images like this? Or are we encouraged to see them as somehow “disgusting” or ridiculous?

Recent years have shown an increase in films with older characters, reportedly vying for the “grey-pound”. We need to have accurate representations of people of all ages in the media, not just so that people can identify with characters like themselves, but for the ways in which it challenges and teaches us to think critically about our stereotypes about age. Monica Bellucci is a great addition to the Bond films but let’s not laud her as a game-changer for women in film. We need more representation of older women (not just those with model looks), as beautiful, sexy and sexual. They need not always be centre-stage, but included alongside other plots and characters, for a drip-by-drip education that can encourage us to see activeness in all ages. Images like these could serve to remind women that they don’t have a “best before” date and their sexuality, at any age, is something to celebrate.

EDAW’13: Now that I don’t have an eating disorder…

Cake: Something I enjoy.

Cake: Much tastier without a side of guilt and self-loathing.

So today’s the last day of this year’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I’ve read the blog-posts, the newspaper articles and watched the campaign videos – there’s been some fantastic stuff this year. And I’ve spent quite a bit of the week thinking about what my offering would be. Last year I wrote this post about how difficult it is to spot someone suffering from an eating disorder.

The days ticked on. And I realised that maybe the reason I’m struggling to engage with this topic is that, really, I don’t have an eating disorder.

I used to. I had an eating disorder for 6 years and recovery, like the onset, has snuck insidiously into my life. At first it was all big steps, exceptions and firsts. Challenges and a lot of tears. But slowly, it started becoming more and more everyday until I reached a point where I don’t really remember the last time I engaged in some typically ‘eating disordered’ behaviour. Every time I eat a typical meal or don’t beat myself up about gaining a couple of pounds, it’s not ‘a step in recovery‘, it’s just ‘living‘.

It’s taken a long time and a lot of work to get here, and I don’t want to lose track of that. I’ve done a whole lot of treatment (thank you NHS!) and I’ve had some brilliant support from my long-suffering friends, family and partners. It didn’t ‘just happen’, but then, suddenly, here I am. I have off-days and times when I get down about my body, but they’re not extreme and they don’t restrict my life. So I thought this year I’d reflect on some of the quiet achievements of recovery and living in (relative) balance with food and my body. I’d like to encourage others still stuck in ED-hell that recovery, though not easy, really is possible. And life on the other side is rather good.

Now that I don’t have an eating disorder…

  • I go out to dinner, to parties and events. I don’t have to live in fear of a buffet being suddenly sprung on me! And these events don’t revolve around the food, I can focus on being together with others.
  • I have no ‘forbidden’ foods. I eat all sorts of food. Sometimes I go for a very indulgent meal or eat a whole packet of biscuits and I don’t really care because everyone does that and one day of indulgence will not make me balloon-out. 
  • I don’t cry when I go clothes shopping. I go get another size. Or just shop online.
  • Sometimes I gain weight. And sometimes I lose weight. It doesn’t have a huge impact on my day/week/month. I actually rarely weigh myself.
  • There are things about my appearance I’m not so keen on. I still have hang-ups and insecurities. But I don’t think anyone has a 100% positive body-image. However, looking in the mirror and not liking how I look doesn’t stop me going out and doing the things I want to do.
  • When someone tells me I look ‘well’ or ‘healthy’ I don’t automatically assume that they mean I’ve put on weight. I can actually take a compliment now!
  • I don’t get into ‘diet talks’. They really bore me. Diets have had enough of my life already.
  • I can think about things other than food, weight, body sizes and the massive long lists of numbers (calories, time in the gym, km run, inches round the waist) that an eating disorder can involve. There’s so much space inside my head now to think so many different things.

So well done to everyone involved in the week raising awareness, there’s still so much more to do but every year I feel like people are becoming more sensitive and understanding of eating disorders.

Strong & Beautiful Style at MAC

strength

I’m currently loving the current MAC ‘Strength’ campaign, featuring fitness model and female body-builder, Jelena Abbou. I’m a long-term fan of MAC make-up and they’re known for employing eye-catching concepts and styling for their photo-shoots, but it’s really refreshing to see a mainstream advertisement that celebrates some diversity in female beauty. Other than rather tokenistic (and often insulting) ‘real women have curves’ shots, a particular standard of young, waifish (and usually white) beauty is very much the published norm. Though being fit and exercising has never exactly been unfashionable, often it seems to be marketed only as a means to losing weight and becoming a particular shape. See this rather depressing article about a New York-based trainer who helps agency models get down to sample size with a very particular exercise regime “Push-ups are out — developing the chest is bad news — as are squats and lunges, which make the derrière too round to fit into the clothes”. When muscular women have featured in ad campaigns and editorials, they’re often portrayed as something of a freak-show attraction, or in a rather masculine manner. It’s nice so see that this campaign celebrates Abbou as a feminine woman as well as an athlete, whose body is a testament to her power and dedication. Strength indeed.

Shop the collection here.

Young and Naked: Vee Speers’ Party Guests

I caught sight of Vee Speers‘ photographs in an article recently in the Metro, where residents living near her Chelsea gallery show had kicked up a fuss about her work being ‘distasteful’ and ‘semi-pornographic’. No doubt the complaints have generated more publicity for the exhibition and the artist than they have deterred visitors. The exhibition, entitled ‘The Birthday Party’ features children dressed up as if to attend a party in a range of quirky and curious outfits. The pictures have an almost-painted quality, they’re pale and slightly eerie, staring doe-eyed, reminding me of the work of Erwin Olaf and digital artist Ray Caesar. The photographs are of Veers’ own daughter and her friends, though she has put together the outfits for the photographs. Some of the shots do involve nudity; a girl clutches dolls to her bare chest, a boy poses with in his underwear with boxing gloves, a girl wears a Minnie mouse-style outfit un-buttoned at the chest. Admittedly these poses might be more provocative for an adult, but I don’t think they’re presented in a sexualised way. Even the shots in which the children dress in more ‘adult’ outfits, the image seems more like ‘playing dress-up as grown-ups’ rather than imitating maturity.

Nudity in itself need not be something sexual or offensive, and in childhood it can be very innocent and playful. Often family photos of children when they’re young will involve some nudity, perhaps playing on the beach or in the garden. Sometimes kids don’t want to wear clothes! Young children don’t tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their naked bodies, they haven’t yet learnt to treat it as such. Where does the concern come from over these images? Is it that they might encourage others to view children in a sexual way, or that those who have an attraction to children might find them arousing? Unfortunately we can’t choose what other people get turned on by, one man’s porn is another’s M&S lingerie catalogue. Personally I find these photos rather fascinating, they seem to create a rather bizarre and perfect world ruled by children, with its own rites and customs, that we are not invited to. Sometimes children wear less clothing, but it’s for themselves, it’s their own, not for others. The photos are beautifully composed, simple yet exquisite. The combination of something soft and natural and something more fantastical. We’re all naked underneath and maybe there’s nothing inherently offensive or erotic about a nude body out of any associated context. Maybe we need to decouple the body and nudity from sexuality, which though often intertwined, can exist separately.

Vaginas are revolting

And they refuse to do it quietly.

I was recently involved in a research study about women’s perceptions of their labia. Seven-plus pages of questions about my opinion of my labia majora. Do I think they’re too big? Too small? Too droopy? Too hairy? Do they bother me? Do I avoid swimming or sex to prevent others from noticing them? Would I like to pay to get someone to nip and tuck them to a more acceptable standard? The questionnaire was definitely something of an eye-opener and did leave me feeling somewhat depressed. Although I was often ticking at the ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ end of the scale, there were some questions where I did have to admit that sometimes I do have less-than-positive opinions about my body. Also I was fully aware that there would be some women out there who would be ticking ‘very much’ and ‘always’ to many of the given statements. There are many people out there who truly hate their labia, or other parts and aspects of their genitalia. That makes me really sad.

I’ve been umming and erring over what language to use in this piece. It’s about female genitalia, vaginas, vulvas and everything that comes attached to them. Often the word ‘vagina’ is used in a non-anatomically-correct (oh, this makes me seethe!) to mean the entire internal and external genitalia. I like ‘cunt’, though I know a lot of people find it offensive. It’s a short strong word that I think holds a similar impact to words used for male anatomy. Plus it’s an old English word, it has the history. Don’t like ‘pussy’, it’s become a little too America-porno and I’m not a fan of cutesy euphemisms, as if there’s something rude or shameful about calling it what it is. I do find myself using phrases like ‘lady-garden’ (mostly because I find this one quite funny, as is the equivalent ‘gentleman-forest’!) and girl-parts, which probably contradicts my previous statement, but it works for me. And you’d probably use different words in different contexts; though anatomical terms are the most accurate, you might not want to throw them into an intimate moment. The Vagina Monologues does a great piece all about this. But we’re talking about the same thing, whatever we call it.

I’m not a historian, but I don’t think this level of dissatisfaction with genitalia was always around. Female body-dissatisfaction is obviously not something new, though it seems to be ever-growing. Operations to ‘trim’ labia into a ‘neat’ shape have not always existed. Whereas much plastic surgery focuses on parts of the body that are immediately obvious to others – bigger breasts, straighter noses, slimmer buttocks. If you wanted to appear more attractive to others, perhaps this makes sense. But your labia aren’t (usually) on show, they’re actually hidden most of the time. Yet woman may feel this pervasive need to change this part of their body that may only be seen by themselves, their gynae and their partner.

I imagine plastic surgeons would say they are responding to a demand, they may well be right. Though I wonder what effect it has even knowing that such an operation exists. A standard is set for the ‘correct’ and ‘appealing’ labia, and the question is posed ‘Is yours attractive? Is it normal? Would you like to change it?’ Health and beauty companies thrive off the fears and insecurities of the masses. Once the customer has been made aware of their need, a product can be sold to them to ‘fill’ this need. Wrinkles, a natural part of aging, are demonised, and a magical cure is sold. Women didn’t use to buy razors. Now the sight of a woman with hairy arm-pits is often treated with disgust. Yet there is no particular hygiene benefit to shaving arm-pits (after all, the majority of men don’t), yet now for women it is considered the norm. As is shaving leg-hair. A new market is created. Special razors for women are marketed, in pretty baby-pinks and blues. A generation of girls are born into a culture where this is completely normal and grooming of body-hair is just something you do.

Looking at older pornography can be quite enlightening (all in the name of research!). I think if you showed a bunch of teenage boys Playboy images from the 70s, with their full-bushes, tan-lines and natural breast, they’d probably laugh and show signs of disgust. Yet this was the height of sexiness not too long ago. For many people, porn is the first time they get to have a really good look at the genitalia of another person. A heterosexual woman may not have many opportunities to have a close to look at another’s parts, being only able to see her own and these images in the media. Even if you do have sex with women, I don’t imagine everyone really gets an opportunity to have a really long, well-lit, inspection of another person’s genitals (doing so may unnerve your partner, so please approach this with caution!). Porn is now very easily accessible. So for many women (and men), they’ve only ever seen their own goods, and the neat and tidy presentations on screen.

Labia show as much variation as human faces, they vary in their colouring, amount of hair, relative sizes and lengths, symmetry…they’re wonderfully diverse. Yet if you’ve only ever seen one particular type and your own, a negative comparison is easily made. (I think this is probably true for men to some extend too, and insecurities around penis size relating to the well-hung men who are sought out for porn. Although culturally men do tend to see other men naked more often – think showering and urinals, than women see other women). Hungry Beast created this fantastic mini-documentary about labia in the media, particularly relating to censorship and photo-editing. As someone who has worked in nude photography I can relate to this. A photograph that displays more labia is often considered more explicit than one that does not. Yet for a model with larger labia, the same pose may show off more than that of another model. Is this in itself inherently offensive? The result is fewer and fewer images that show the true variation of labia, leading those who don’t fit this model to believe that there’s something strange and ugly about themselves.

I once over-heard a conversation given by someone I know about a ‘scary vagina’. A ‘scary vagina’ apparently has hair on the outer labia, and the inner labia and larger than the outer. This isn’t a ‘scary vagina’, it’s a totally normal one! And it’s this kind of attitude that perpetuates shame and body-loathing.

The recent back-lash over the latest Fem-Fresh campaign has pulled this campaign for cunts of the world into the more mainstream attention. The team behind the adverts for vag-wipes probably thought they were empowering women, with their adverts of a jubilant woman saying ‘Woohoo for my froo-froo!’ and ‘Whatever you call it, love it’. It isn’t all bad, we should be able to have information about women’s body parts out there. Recently a women’s group were reprimanded for leaving ‘sexually explicit’ material around where children could see them. The material in question was a poster advertising support services and awareness of female genital mutilation and featured an image of a young woman of Africa-heritage. I have looked at the material several times and all I can come up with is that the school did not wish for children to see the word or references to ‘genital’. What message does this send, to sufferers of these atrocities, but also to young people in general? That we can’t talk about what’s between our legs?

Anyway, back to Fem-Fresh. It seems we can only talk about vaginas under cutsey euphemisms. And this is the razor story all over again. Create insecurity and need: your vagina smells bad. Sell product to fix need: here is a wipe to make your vagina smell lovely. Provided you wash regularly and don’t have an infection, your vagina smells completely normal. It isn’t supposed to smell like a flower. Vaginas are moist, it’s how they clean themselves. They have their own, natural smell. I don’t think it would be a big leap to say that many people like this smell, it’s erotic. I’m reminded of Pamela Des Barres 70s groupie memoir when she talks about using chocolate and strawberry douches (now out of favour mainly due to being particularly unhealthy and actually promoting infection). Vaginas aren’t supposed to taste like ice-cream.

It goes without saying that it is absolutely a woman’s choice to do exactly what she wishes with her own genitalia. And if that means that she wishes to have her labia surgically cut and trimmed, all the hair waxed off and for her vulva to be lightly fragranced, so be it. It’s her choice. But it should be because that’s what she wants, rather than out of a fear that her vagina is shameful and disgusting as it is and needs to reach a certain standard before it can be unleashed on others. Unless you work in the sex industry, your genitalia are probably only seen by yourself and the people you choose to have sex with. It’s something personal and private, not on show to the world in the same way that other parts of the body are. There are women around the world who are having their genitals savagely mutilated and disfigured, having their right to a natural body and sex-life taken from them, yet we’re inflicting our own private battle on our lady-parts. Owners of vaginas: Your genitals aren’t an identikit flesh-light, they’re a diverse and wonderful piece of human anatomy. You weren’t born believing there was something wrong with your body, yet somehow the idea became more and more acceptable to the point where it’s completely accepted. An entire industry thrives on making you hate what you have and buy a piece of altered perfection. It doesn’t have to be that way.

And for everyone else who loves vaginas: Show them some appreciation! Each is different and they’re not strange or scary. Go and tell your favourite vagina how much you like her, just as she is.

It’s not really in the flavour of this article, but as some of you may be at work, images below the cut.

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Gender Fatigue – Andrej Pejic & the trend for the ‘bend

Edit 22/04/15 – In the time since I wrote this piece I’m aware that that Adreja Pejic has “come out” and transitioned. In light of this I’ve considered whether this piece comes across as mean-spirited. My intention was to criticise the idea that the only kind of acceptable gender non-conforming body was one that conformed to idealised standards of (female) beauty, and that this was not as ground-breaking and empowering as some media sources had made it out to be. I have no issue with Pejic herself and however she chooses to express herself, more the way the media paraded her.

Barnes & Nobel censored this cover, worrying that customers might mistake him for a topless woman

Barnes & Nobel censored this cover, worrying that customers might mistake him for a topless woman

Here comes an unpopular opinion. I am bored of Andrej Pejic. There, I said it.

Yes, he’s pretty, I don’t deny that. I’m not bored of looking at him,  he’s gorgeous and has created some stunning images. What I’m bored of is the way he’s being continually lauded as the patron saint of gender diversity as if he’s the first bloke to ever wear a dress.

You’ve probably heard of the Serbian-born male model, famous for, well, looking like a girl. And not just any girl, a beautiful girl, with the high-fashion look designers crave. Andrei shot to fame following a Marc Jacobs editorial which showed the blond, elfin model in a short dress, showing off his slender, well-oiled legs. A sensation was born and Pejic became one of the first male models to take part in female catwalk shows and fronting many campaigns for men’s and women’s wear. Controversy and world-wide fame insued after he gained a place in FHM’s ‘hottest women’ list, generating some rather ugly transphobic abuse, and when he starred in a push-up bra advert.

Pejic, who does not identify as transgender, has been quoted saying that he enjoys dressing in both masculine and feminine styles and has been mistaken for a girl since he was a child, suffering no hostility for it “I can’t really say that it was ever a bad thing. All I’ll say is … a lot of free drinks!”. Journalists and media have applauded his bravery and defiance in the face of gender-norms, his innovation and his status as an icon of gender-fluidity, someone judged on their ‘merits’ rather than their gender. So does the acceptance of Pejic into the mainstream media and fashion world mean that society is becoming more accepting of variation in gender and individuals whose identity differs from their biological sex? I’m not so sure.

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Ordinary Obsessions

When I left eating disorder treatment I wanted to love myself and my body. Love, not just like. Not just tolerate, put up with, make-do. I wanted to look in the mirror and smile at the person standing there, feel that that was someone worth being. Turn around, do a twirl, and love the me-ness reflecting out.

I was 18 and I’d been in out-patient treatment for a year. I’d been to countless assessments and therapy sessions, cried in front of various stern professionals, and grudgingly, bite by painful bite, I’d put the weight back on. I was crawling back to wellness. But it had been worth it. When my body had enough energy to power it, the world didn’t feel like quite such a fearful place. I began to venture out, to open my mouth, smile and rekindle the friendships my illness had tossed aside.  Something warm began to grow in me.

When the clasps of this monster started to loosen, I felt like I could finally see the full extent of the horror I’d led myself into. The scars on my limbs, the downy hair that now grows permanently from my cheeks, my back and chest.  The dull ache in my fragile, calcium-deficient bones. The feeling of grief for the younger-me began to turn into an anger. Why had being thin, being ‘beautiful’ been so important that I had risked my life and hurt so many others for it? I felt desperately sad for everyone else still stuck in the pain I had felt. I wanted to lash out at the world that had planted such ideas in my head. I was a born-again body-confidence evangelist. Working Saturdays in a local book-shop I felt a surge of rage at the shelves in the ‘health’ section.  Filled with tones of empty promises for the perfect figure and the perfect life; through a few simple dietary instructions. Why should we sell so many of these ugly things, when we didn’t have a single copy of ‘Lolita’, or ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’? But there was a demand that kept the books in stock.

At the eating disorder clinic, there were no fashion or gossip magazines in the waiting room. Only rather dull publications on gardening, interior design and current affairs. At the time I found this rather patronising, that they feared that a photo of a supermodel would be so wretchedly triggering that I wouldn’t be able to bare it. But looking back on it, I think about how they’d tried to keep the clinic a safe space, away from the blare of the appearance-obsessed media. A rare haven away from the storm. It was a token-effort, but I can appreciate it.

In treatment you learn that ‘normal’ people do not keep their bodies at an unhealthy weight, or go to such extremes to lose and maintain weight. The dietician gave me a plan of ‘normal’ eating, with three balanced meals a day, plus snacks in between. ‘Normal’ people feel hunger, and then they eat. And they’re able to stop eating when they’re full. And then they carry on with their day. ‘Normal’ people do not wake up in the middle of the night sweating because they dreamt they went downstairs and ate everything in the fridge. ‘Normal’ people do not burst into tears when trying on jeans in Topshop.

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