Flesh. Even the word is – no pun intended – freighted. What should be a simple descriptive for, well, flesh, has, over the past century, become charged with negativity for women. Such is the programming running in my 49-year-old subconscious that the terminology alone is enough to make me recoil slightly.
Yes, however much I consider myself resistant to the aesthetic pressures women are put under – with my grey hair and my unBotoxed frown lines – I haven’t managed to fight entirely shy of this one. I am someone who is naturally fleshy, who has a bum and thighs, and society has taught me to police that tendency. And so surreptitiously, unnoted often even by me, I do.
Yet look how fabulous flesh is! Look at these glorious, celebratory pictures of Seynabou Cissé and Molly Constable. Their curves are spectacular – proof positive that big can be, if not necessarily better, then certainly just as good. Not that these two beauties are even big. They are average. Considerably smaller than the literal UK average dress size, in fact, which is a 16.
At last – at last! – the final frontier of the fashion industry is being broken down. It may have upped its game in recent years on both ethnicity and age, yet the endemic body fascism has taken longer to shift. Sure, these days one will sometimes see on the catwalk a properly plus-size model with fantastical proportions reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf’s. However, most models remain tiny, a different variety of fantastical. And still missing in action have been the women of a more ‘normal’ size – the women who look like many of us do, like more beautiful versions of us, of course (they are models, after all), but like us.
Seynabou’s dress measurements, for example, are similar to my own. And I am a bog-standard size 12. I happen to think it’s important that bog-standard size 12s – not to mention bog-standard 16s,14s, 10s – exist in the mirrored worlds of aspiration that fashion, and Hollywood, reflect back at us.
Where did the so-called ‘thin ideal’ that has been in ascendancy over the past hundred years even come from? In her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Susan Bordo argues that it’s about 'the tantalising ideal of a well-managed self in which all is kept in order'. That this has had a greater hold over women than men is because "throughout dominant Western religious and philosophical traditions, the capacity for self-management is decisively coded as male. By contrast, all those bodily spontaneities – hunger, sexuality, the emotions – seen as needful of containment and control have been culturally constructed... as female." Golly.
And so, to follow Bordo’s argument, modern women – or at least those in "late modern Western societies" – have used their bodies to demonstrate to others that they can do, be, live as men do; that they can subjugate their "domestic, reproductive destiny".
Yet, of course, true female empowerment is not about denying who we already are – by way of our body or anything else – but about embracing all the other things we can be in addition to what was open to our mothers or grandmothers. To love our flesh however much there happens to be of it, is an act of feminism as well as an embrace of femininity. And it’s the potent entwining of those two most encumbered of f-words – not, in fact, the yin and yang they were once considered to be, but two sides to the same coin, our coin – that will set us free.
Anna Murphy is the fashion director of The Times.
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