An initiative of the National Women’s Council of Ireland


Whose body is it anyway? Take note of my substance, not my style

July 08, 2013 at 9:37

Young girls are over sexualised; this is taken as an often repeated, scientific fact by broad swathes of the media. Teenage girls today are obsessed with looking like Rihanna and spend too much time on their appearance in a desperate effort to attract the appreciative glances of the opposite sex. Some articles regarding the apparent over sexualisation of young girls are downright patronising, somewhat derogatory and certainly sexist. Other commentary is well meaning; showing what is believed to be concern for apparently vulnerable young girls. Whatever the intentions of the commentary, it contributes to an extremely negative culture where we view the image of young girls and women as public property.

This culture is evident in the “Who wore it better” pages of magazines, particularly common around the reality TV shows. Tulisa is pitted against Nicole Scherzinger, and being in the public eye, these women are expected to conform to the requirements expected of a woman. Similarly, Holly Willoughby was recently blamed by the Daily Mail for the fall in The Voice’s viewing figures, by virtue of the fact that her dresses were not as low cut as usual, and she wasn’t showing much of her famous ‘Willyboobies’. Fast forward two weeks, and the same tabloid was running articles condemning the low cut, distracting dress, she wore on the final of the BBC show, before detailing the complaints Ofcom, the UK regulator for media, received from concerned viewers.

The argument is made that women who put themselves in the public eye know that they will ultimately receive this kind of scrutiny and should therefore not complain. This is nonsense; it is not confined to celebrities and men don’t face the same scrutiny as women. The issue isn’t about what look is right for girls, it’s that we shouldn’t be commenting on what girls look like at all. While the papers are giving out about the over-sexualisation of young girls, on social media there exists the phenomena known as “slut shaming”, highlighting the appearance of a young girl and ridiculing her, if it is seen to be too “slutty”. It is not okay for the next generation to grow up repeating our mistakes. A women’s appearance should not be commented on, any more than a man’s is. How a girl dresses is not news.

Hillary Clinton once famously quipped, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.” We live in a world where a woman’s style is a bigger story than the substance of what she has to say. It’s not possible to encourage young girls to enter politics, or any decision making forum, if the reality of the situation is that they will be judged more for how they look rather than what they have to say. In the current debate surrounding legislation for the X Case, we see a Dáil full of men making choices for women. The voices of the debate are predominantly male, and this is in part because the main time we give women a voice is when we discuss their appearance. This suits the male patriarchy, because it lends credence to the idea that men will decide the important political stuff, while women concern themselves with lesser topics such as fashion and beauty. 

While the media obsess over which celebrity wore what dress better, in the real world women are taking a stand. Progress for women’s equality has been slow, but there are encouraging signs. Gender quotas in politics, the changes signalled by the Constitutional Convention on changing the place of women in Irish society, the commitment to hold a referendum on marriage equality and also the first piece of abortion legislation in Ireland, show that equality is coming. The strong membership of the Y Factor is testament to the fact that young women care about real issues, and will not be forced into the side-lines by debates on clothes and hair. We are determined that the Ireland of the future will be a different place for young women, so please stop the debate over what we look like. We have far more important things to concern ourselves with.

Sarah Clarkin @sarahclarkin