I am Woman…Part Two

Look but don't touch!

The term ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ originates from a series of 15th Century purges on perceived facilitators of ‘sin’. Particular focus was predictably placed on consigning the fripperies of femininity, such as mirrors, cosmetics and pretty dresses to a literal fire, with the aim of imposing ‘morality’ and restoring the integrity of human value.

In the modern context, it would be difficult to envisage such a drastic repression of these superficial enhancers of feminine attractiveness – the staggering profits at stake for the cosmetics industry would perhaps provide the most formidable barrier of all. Moreover, the argument of morality curtailing the widespread use of cosmetics simply wouldn’t float. However there remains a tenacious germ of the former repression of female sexual expression, resulting in a double standard, which places a woman in a state of psychological war with herself.

This double standard gives women the permission; through the agency of cosmetics, high heels, revealing clothing, etc, to present herself as sexually available in the public sphere but the private desires she may have are still, to a great extent, subject to judgmental scrutiny. In acknowledging her body as an object for public consumption, she is also acutely aware of the risk she runs in declaring her sexual desires in a way which is consistent with her physical embellishments.

Publicly expressing a desire for sex for the pleasure of the act, rather than as a vehicle for emotional connection is still a risky business for women. In the Victorian era, such women were pathologised as ‘nymphomaniacs’.  Although the Victorian medicalisation of perceived excessive female sexual appetite is no longer in fashion (although electric shock therapy may still yet make a comeback), the narrative in popular culture has stepped into its place and women who enjoy recreational, casual sex are to some degree, still regarded as ‘sluts’, by men and women alike. I have yet to hear a rapper refer to a man with the male equivalent of a ‘ho’, with the same derogatory connotations as the female version, which features so heavily in their material. Yet the standard rap promo, with a camera languidly panning a parade of bikini-clad women at a pool party, still prevails.

The wider cultural scene also persists in intellectualising the view that women primarily use sex to attain love; as opposed to men, who fool women into having sex with them with vague mutterings of love. Such theories are often supported by tabloid disseminated science; informing readers that women automatically attach emotionally to any man they happen to have sex with (through the agency of a hormone called Oxytocin). Such a theory puts me in mind of the cartoons I watched as a kid, where a chick (of the avian kind) bonds with the first object it sees upon hatching. We can all do without these explanations regarding the function of complex neural-transmission processes, crudely over-simplified for tabloid consumption.

Such assumptions infer the inherent ‘emotionality’ of women, which renders us incapable of viewing sex with the objectivity that men are capable of (despite scores of prostitutes throughout the ages proving otherwise). In effect, we are no further removed from the mindset of the medieval climate which created the Bonfire of the Vanities. Women have always been permitted to be the decorative sex, like inviting window displays, with the proviso that we keep our sexual appetites in check, for the sake of our ‘reputations’.

Personally, I have no problem at all with the fripperies of femininity; cosmetics, high heels, revealing clothing. My issue lies with the enduring disconnect between how women are encouraged to present our bodies in public and how we are denigrated for how we choose to use our bodies in private. Perhaps the way forward is to embrace the fripperies; to wear them all, to wear them well; not as false advertising, but for your own pleasure.


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