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Artillery Row

Secular stigmata

Women are caught between different forms of bodily shame

Remember when self-harm was unequivocally a bad thing? Today, progressive organisations have been “educated” to know better, and they want to share their learning with us. They tell us scars on the bodies of young women should be “celebrated” as markers of social inclusion — secular stigmata showing personal triumph over inflexible, fleshy reality.

Over the past week both Costa and Dr Martens have drawn criticism for featuring cartoon images of females who appear to have had elective mastectomies to resemble men. The coffee chain claimed the image they slapped on the side of a festival van aimed to “encourage people to feel welcomed, free and unashamedly proud to be themselves.” Dr Martens meanwhile claimed that a pair of boots with a scarred woman was a one-off design reflecting “the artist’s style and expression as an illustrator and member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Costa and Dr Martens have shirked their responsibility and hidden behind the progressive pride flag. But the problem is far wider than woke brands, which have simply tapped into a thriving micro-economy of infantile, activist art. And what is being promoted is a far cry from the iconic work of feminist artist Barbara Kruger, who famously told women ‘Your Body is a Battleground’.

Intriguingly, some feminists who once vigorously decried tits for titillation in The Sun are now at the forefront of calls to bring back boobs — or, more accurately, to stop glamourising women who elect to chop off their breasts.

Stephanie Davies-Arai is founder of gender critical lobby group Transgender Trend, and she was also a key player in the No More Page 3 campaign to have porn removed from the pages of The Sun. She explains that a culture which once reduced women to their sexual attractiveness to men has today “morphed for this generation of girls into an online porn culture that has updated old-fashioned sexual objectification into sexual humiliation and abuse”.

“Girls are supposed to feel happy about approaching womanhood in a culture where they are taunted with this degrading representation of women by boys in school playgrounds,” continues Davies-Arai. “Go along with it and get a boob job to compete, or bow out completely, identify as a boy and have your breasts cut off. It is not surprising that more and more girls are opting for the latter.

Before Instagram and TikTok, parliamentarians decried the ad agencies’ airbrush as the devil’s pitchfork. There was widespread panic about the psychological impact of unattainable standards of beauty, with then 2010 Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone arguing for a Kitemark or health warning on edited photographs. But today, the wholesome message of body positivity has been displaced by relentless drive to normalise body dysmorphia — an acute mental illness that necessitates therapeutic intervention.

The narratives pumped out through social media, and indeed BBC programming, are madly contradictory

The narratives pumped out through social media, and indeed BBC programming, are madly contradictory. Teens are taught in schools that domestic violence is a crime unless it’s in the bedroom, at which point it is transformed into an empowering and sexy kink. Similarly, children’s libraries are stocked with books about mental wellbeing, self-acceptance and loving one’s body — though if they have gender dysphoria, flesh must be cut away with the surgeon’s scalpel.

While men and boys undoubtedly feel more pressure to beef up, it is girls who are the prey for this contradictory messaging. Young women are allowed to be fat and sexy, or muscular and sexy. What they are not allowed is to simply “be”. The alternative to being objectified and sexualised is to be made into a woke token. Young women are given a bleak, binary choice: be a sex object, or a surgical simulacrum of a man.

When in 1989 Labour’s Clare Short MP suggested that Page 3 be scrapped, The Sun viciously branded her “fat” and “jealous.” She was speaking just six years after Samantha Fox became the youngest Sun model at just 16.

Thanks to both the efforts of feminist campaigners and the inability of print to compete with the devastating juggernaut of online porn, Page 3 is fading into an embarrassing cultural memory. Yet powerful public figures fought for the right of men to letch at teenage girls in the UK’s bestselling national newspaper. Today, those who point out that desperate and futile attempts to flee womanhood ought not to be glamourised are derided by Guardianistas as backward and bigoted. Here’s hoping that soon the cutesy cartoon images of scarred women will evoke a similar sense of shame and revulsion.

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