Fighting body fascism and teaching the kids about feminism

As the wedding draws closer, I am starting to feel the pressure that I thought I had done well at resisting: – the pressure to look beautiful, slim, elegant. I am considering detoxing, waxing, and even omitting my nightly glass of wine. This is the result of trying on dresses almost daily in my search for one that I can imagine wearing in public. I realise that I never wear dresses, for the simple reason that they just don’t fit me. They are not designed for buxom women like me.

‘This kind of thing is harder for women,’ I tell my daughter, Chief Bridesmaid ‘we are under a lot of pressure to look nice in our wedding dresses.’

‘Well of course,’ she says ‘the dress is the main thing about the wedding.’

‘Yes, but the men don’t have to worry about that, do they?’

‘Ha ha, well that’s because they don’t wear a dress Mum!’ She laughs at my silliness for some time, before she is struck by a thought.

‘He isn’t worrying about his suit though, is he Mum?’

She is beginning to get the point of my observations. This conversation went better than the one I had the other night with Chief Bridesmaid and my future stepson, Best Man:

Watching an old video for Band Aid, I saw a sea of male singers,

‘Music was just like a boys club in the 80s, wasn’t it? There are NO WOMEN at all in this!’

‘Yes there are!’ the kids like to argue these points with me. When I challenged them to show me the women in the video, they shouted ‘there’s one!’ as John Taylor came into view. It was hard to convince them that any of the members of Duran Duran were male, and as for Boy George and Marilyn – impossible. They then proceeded to shout ‘There’s ANOTHER girl!’ every time a member of Bananarama appeared, until it seemed that Bananarama outnumbered very other band.

The androgynous pop stars of the 80s look very strange to our children.

Magazine cover from the 80s, with Duran Duran (top left) and Boy George (top right)

Magazine cover from the 80s, with Duran Duran (top left) and Boy George (top right)

It’s a different story today.

Magazine cover from 2012 with Rhianna, JLS, The Wanted and One Direction

Magazine cover from 2012 with Rhianna, JLS, The Wanted and One Direction

As more women have become successful in the music industry, gender differences have been emphasised. Women can look almost like caricatures of femininity; from eyelashes to nails, to footwear, they are decorated in bright, impractical colours, while the men are dressed in plain clothes – in the case of JLS, just a white vest in order to show off their muscles.

Brides seem to have always been caricatures of femininity, from the 80s

Princess Diana - the 1980s power princess look

Princess Diana – the 1980s power princess look

To the present day

Kate's tiny princess look

Kate’s tiny princess look

There doesn’t seem to be all that much difference between the two gowns – the Big White Dress look is pretty much the same, whatever the era.

Marriage is, of course, whatever you make it, but the wedding service does seem designed to bring the age-old pressures of a patriarchal world bearing down – I’m worrying about things I haven’t considered worrying about for years, in fact I’m having to work hard to prevent myself being taken back to teenage levels of body insecurity. On this journey with me is Chief Bridesmaid, who is already a little worried about her developing figure. In talking to her about these things, I try to show her that it’s not wrong to feel these insecurities; sometimes they are impossible to avoid. It’s how we deal with them that is important. I hope that she will learn to question why she feels that way, and in doing so avoid being helplessly swamped by external expectations.

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2 thoughts on “Fighting body fascism and teaching the kids about feminism

  1. What a forward-thinking and sensible mother you are! Hooray for mothers who talk to their kids about what is, rather than pretending that the world is some kind of idealised place where everybody thinks beauty is only skin deep, and villains get their just deserts. (Why should the villains be the ones getting just pudding, that’s why I want to know… to be able to eat just pudding makes it worth being a villain, I think.) There’s no point telling kids ‘it doesn’t matter what you look like; it’s what you’re like inside that counts’ in a world that puts such a value on appearance.

    The long white dress is actually quite a modern thing – until the mid-twentieth century, the wedding dress was usually just a fancy version of the current fashion. It seems to have coincided with women’s clothing becoming less pretty and more practical. You might have to be practical every other day of your life, but why not be pretty on your wedding day? It’s also the one day you can really justify spending a lot on a dress without anybody making snarky remarks. White seems to have made a gradual appearance from 1800 onwards – before that, you picked a colour that you liked, or sent the right message. Queen Victoria set the seal on white wedding dresses. She has a lot to answer for.

    I wonder if anyone asked Kate whether she really wanted a traditional white wedding dress? I wonder if she had a secret desire to get married in gold, like Harriet Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. Of course, if she had got married in anything other than the traditional white confectionery look, there’d probably have been a constitutional crisis. Her wedding wasn’t even all hers: she was marrying Great Britain, and her wedding choices got dictated by sixty million in-laws.

    It’s also worth remembering that when there’s a gender divide, men don’t always get the good stuff. At least as women we have a choice when it comes to wedding clothes. I sometimes wish I’d got married in a traditional wedding dress; then I could have had the fun of trying all the different ones on. My mother certainly wishes I had; she completely missed the mother-daughter bonding ritual that is wedding-dress selection. But at least I had a choice. Men, generally, don’t get that. How much choosing can go into picking a suit? They’re all pretty much the same. So not only do they not get the fun of trying on different styles, and having a day (or more) of self-indulgence, but they end up looking almost exactly like every other man. Worse yet, is the trend for dressing all the men in the wedding party alike – so on his own wedding day, he doesn’t even get to look special. He looks like one of a set. It’s like a reverse version of the ladies of the lake in ‘the Physician of Myddfai’, where the young man had to pick out his true love from three nearly-identically dressed ladies. (Advice note: if this is the case, give your husband-to-be some unique item to wear, just so you can be sure you end up married to the right man. You never know. It’s always best to be certain about these things.)

    I also have dress problems – I like wearing dresses, but I have to be careful for other reasons. I have muscular arms, and I particularly remember a gorgeous white lace dress that I fell in love with instantly. I tried it on, and I looked absolutely awful. It fitted, but I looked like a pig in a wig. If one might ask, are you a lady of abundant, Reubenesque figure all over, or are you large on top but skinny everywhere else? I ask because the one time I set foot in a bridal shop, helpful advice was not exactly forthcoming. It was more like visiting any other shop, only more expensive – if you wanted decent advice, you had to bring it with you.

    I’ll shut up now… 🙂

    • Hi Tiff, thanks for your comment! I think it is hard sometimes to strike a balance between imbuing your child with nice values and ideals, and preparing them for reality – but I do tend to err on the side of sense and caution! My Mum told me looks don’t matter, also that all I have to do is to be myself. Neither was quite true…It’s easier if you can recognise the pressures you are going to be experiencing.

      Weddings do create pressure – yes I could imagine that Kate Middleton wouldn’t be at liberty to choose a red dress, say – but apparently before Queen Victoria, this was one of the most popular colours for a wedding dress in Europe.

      I see what you mean about men having choice, but I think that sometimes choice can be wrongly equated with freedom – what about the freedom NOT to choose? I can think of nothing more liberating than having my style chosen for me and looking almost exactly like every other woman there! I would feel more at liberty to enjoy the occasion without having to think about my dress. Self indulgence in clothes is great if you are someone who can carry off an attention stealing dress; the kind of person who is good at coordinating their style. As for me, I realised at one point that what I was looking for was a wedding dress that would enable me to melt into the background – clearly a bit of a futile wish for a bride!

      I think that men are getting more choice in clothes nowadays, but there seems to have been a rise in eating disorders in men – perhaps a result of them beginning to experience the same pressure to look good?

      In answer to your question, I am – while not exactly skinny – about 4 sizes smaller in the body than the bust. This is what causes most of my problems – I have a choice between a dress that fits my hips and waists but can’t contain my bust, or one that can, and hangs like a tent everywhere else. I have had a couple of personal shoppers, who tend to try me in the smaller sizes, then the larger, realise that neither will fit and completely lose interest. ‘I don’t know what to suggest’ they say ‘maybe try wearing a different bra.’ Helpful advice was definitely not forthcoming!

      Having said all that, I did today come across a beautiful dress which actually fitted me. I was so excited about this that I bought it on the spot (luckily it was in the sale). I am not sure whether I will wear it. It’s emerald green, which wasn’t the colour I was planning to wear – but my Mum thinks it looks amazing.

      (Even if I don’t wear it for the wedding , I don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to return it…it will stay in my wardrobe waiting for the right occasion).

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