Feminism and Mental Health – One for the Ladybros

‘So you’re hanging out with a bunch of butch lesbians tonight then?’ – today’s words of wisdom from my brother. My rock, my Person To Turn To In A Crisis, a genuinely awesome and caring family man – and also my lasting reminder of why feminism is needed today more than ever.

I have joined a feminist book club. And it’s great. We gather in a cobwebbed, dimly lit corner of one of my local pubs and excitedly chatter all things feminist literature over various booze-brimming glasses and usually a bucket of chips. Last month we were even lucky enough to convince a male of the species to join us for the first time – after a full year of monthly meet-ups. It’s exhilarating to be back in the presence of intelligent, engaged and passionate women – but the skewed vagina-to-phallus ratio at the group is reminding me of one of the most common misconceptions about feminism. That it’s all about women.

Sexism has a hugely detrimental impact on mental health – for women and men. Feminism isn’t just about levelling the playing field for women (although this is of course a big part of it) – it’s about standing up to the demonisation of feminine qualities. This applies to men too. Why should men feel any trepidation around getting involved with feminism, or that they don’t have a part to play in the conversation? Society still looks down on sensitivity in men – gentleness, kindness and good old fashioned TLC are still thought of as female mainstays – you just have to look at the gender balance in professions like social work, counselling or childcare. Ever laughed at someone for ‘crying like a girl?’ I wouldn’t blame you, these sexist tropes are so ingrained within modern society they just roll off the tongue without a moment’s thought to the gendered structures they’re maintaining.

Female activism, suffrage and the renaissance of feminism in recent years has brought amazing progress. Whenever I get leered at by a white van man, overlooked in favour of a male colleague or reminded of the ever-present gender pay gap in my country, I remind myself that it could be worse. I could be Victorian and living in a time where my womb was blamed for every moment of mental strife I ever endured (see ‘hysteria’ – the genuine belief that the womb wandered around the body wreaking chaos and destruction on a lady’s nervous system). But as I look around my little circle of enthusiastic readers I yearn for some male counterparts to balance the books (SORRY).

It’s safe to say that present day ladybros have it pretty good compared to the dark ages of witch burning and house-wife drudgery. However ridiculous preconceptions about femininity still colour every aspect of modern living. It’s obvious why feminism still has a rightful place in society, undergoing a burgeoning renaissance in recent years – but if feminism’s really going to help women, we need it to help men too. And that can’t happen unless they’re part of the conversation, whether that’s in the boardroom, the House of Commons, Donald Trump’s yacht or the back room of my local pub. Until the dudes of Berkshire can feel completely comfortable about turning up to a feminist book club, as far as I’m concerned, there’s still much work to be done.

No More Page 3 – an ode to tits and arse

No-More-Page-3

I remember The Sun newspaper littering the worn coffee tables of my school common room. The boys in the year above comparing Page Three models to various girls they’d seen naked. Katie from Dorset, 34DD, out on display like strawberry millions in the local sweet shop window. She was an aspiring photographer, apparently.

I remember listening to my male friends’ open commentary on which model had the best breasts out of those adorning lad’s mag covers in our local newsagents. The first time I camped out at Reading Festival and the boys decorated the tents with a paper-chain of lesbian porn mags. Feeling ashamed and stuffing my bra with cotton wool to match these buxom ladies, and ending up with lumpy boobs.

I grew up aware of female objectification, surrounded by it in fact. At school we were active participants in our own subordination – rolling our skirts up until they were a mere puffy grey bulge connecting hip and upper thigh, cooing over the ‘fit list’ that circulated round our year 8 class, trying to hide barely repressed pride the first time a white van man honked his horn at us. Such was the way of the world and we accepted our female bodies as vessels for lust, vying for male attention and adoration, competing with each other via lipstick and push-up bra weaponry to live up to the images of femininity peddled by the media that enveloped us.

It was only when I lived and worked in Honduras briefly aged 21 and suffered daily cat-calls, hisses and spitting from local men in the street, that something truly and irrevocably sank in. Being treated differently for occupying a female body wasn’t just frustrating and irritating. It was frightening. My grasp of Spanish was lacking, but even I soon knew my way around Latino slang for ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘cheap’.

Whether I knew how it affected me at the time or not, I grew up surrounded by tits and arse. These days I’m grown up enough to know that my bra size isn’t the sum of my worth, but I know as a self conscious adolescent this conveyor belt of female objectification made me feel inadequate. And it was everywhere. The man on the bus flipping through topless photos of Paris Hilton, bikini-clad women on the front page of the Mail in the corner shop, raunchy magazines carelessly strewn in the gutter.

Depression is around twice as common in women as in men. About one in four females are bitten by the black dog at some point during their lifetime – this isn’t about to change while girls grow up enveloped in a media culture that ascribes value based on their bodies rather than their achievements.

‘Turn the page’, David Cameron once said – asserting that it’s the ‘parent’s responsibility’ to protect their children from inappropriate images in the media. ‘There are some things you don’t want your children to see and you should make sure they don’t see them.’ I’m fairly certain the only way a parent could truly shield their child from the kind of sexism and objectification our society promotes, would be to blind and deafen them.

So I’m supporting the No More Page 3 campaign, and I’ve signed the petition asking editor David Dinsmore to take the bare boobs out of The Sun newspaper. If you too have a problem with insidious displays of female availability in the media, then you should sign the petition here.

My young mind was yet to start really asking questions when I didn’t see being surrounded by wholesale female nudity as anything but the norm. I just don’t want my children growing up thinking that seeing naked ladies in the family newspaper is ordinary.