Thursday, 3 September 2009

In which I get my hands on the Sartorialist's new book

I pre-ordered this book over a month before it came out. I check the blog at least twice a day. I cannot deny that I, like so many others, am obsessed with the Sartorialist. Of course I love the images. But I also love Scott Schuman's attitude. Despite being lauded as pretty much the most influential, most widely-read/viewed, most imitated player in fashion media at the moment - and there's a very good argument for such platitudes being true - he gives out an aura of modesty and humility that makes for refreshing reading. While he undoubtedly has a superb eye for style and a great gift for portrait photography, he is always generous and outward-looking in his commentary, always praising the talents and tastes of others, not himself, and always acknowledging his debt of inspiration to others, and speaking of the joy he gets from what he does and the people his lifestyle allows him to encounter. So Scott, if you're reading this, call me.

My copy of the book arrived in the post today - hooray! After 30 minutes of greedily perusing of the pages, what stood out for me (well, after I'd got over my giddy clothes-induced excitement) was the number of times Schuman brings up, and criticises, particular themes in the kinds of comments that some images had provoked on his blog. For example, next to one image of a very slender young woman, he remarks:
When I posted the picture on the blog, most of the conversation about the shot focused on her weight [...] For me, the image will always be about her stillness, not her weight.
It's common for Schuman to either censor or ask for fewer comments about the body type of his subjects on the actual blog, as any frequent peruser of the comments will have noticed, and that's fair enough: such discussions can easily descend into what read like personal attacks on the subject.

Then, opposite an image of a precociously stylish pre-teen Parisien, Schuman comments:
Unfortunately, when I posted this shot on the blog the majority of comments were about the $1,200 sneakers he was wearing.
His cover star, Julie, receives her own page of commentary from the author:
Often when I post a picture of her she receives comments like, 'Oh, she is sooo perfect, so chic, a modern Audrey Hepburn. Well, she is very chic, but she is far from perfect, physically at least. Julie has one leg slightly shorter than the other, has very slim arms, and walks with a very slight limp. However, she has never let her physical challenges alter her appearance or diminish her presence.
These comments are interesting in themselves as examples of the way in which a photographer and his public can react differently to the same image. This is in part because of what Schuman can know from real life interaction, but we can't glean from a photo (for example, Julie's limp). But it's also clear that Schuman is trying to exclude certain elements from the discussion of his images. For him, it's all and only about the aesthetic. It's about the aura the slender girl gives out, and the pose she stands in, and the image this creates, and nothing more. It's about the way the sneakers look, that's all, and not a question of how much they cost.

But this is tant amount to putting up a barrier to what are, surely, natural and reasonable patterns of thought. Yes, we can appreciate the aesthetics of an image, pure and simple, but it's virtually impossible to be drawn into the story that the image seems to be telling us, and the questions that it raises. When you see a pre-teen kid wearing shoes that cost as much as many people earn in a week, is it really wrong to question the ethics of the decision to buy them for him? When you see a woman who looks underweight, can you really stop yourself from wondering whether she is genuinely under-nourished, and why? I don't think you can, and Schuman doesn't really, either: he often describes his blog as simply not being 'the right place' for that kind of discussion (and discussions of, say, women's body image and the media's role in manipulating it are ones I am sure he would consider as crucial and important). But to try and make his blog and his book a kind of de-politicised space is both futile (as commentator's reactions consistently show) and naïve. There can be no such thing.

It's not as though the editors of fashion magazines can tell women not to feel insecure about their bodies when their pages are full of impossibly slender, Photoshopped-to-perfection models. You can't expect consumers of media to simply switch off those parts of their brains and consume your images in the ways you want to offer them up. And Schuman contradicts his apolitical policy regularly himself, as the final quotation about Julie shows. In this quotation, Schuman is indirectly but clearly speaking out against a culture which discriminates against people whose bodies do not fit the expected mould, making Julie's poise and elegance a politicised symbol of defiance and strength. Yet if he wants to encourage us to see some of his images as positive political statements, he can't logically or fairly criticise commentators who interpret others as more negative statements, be it as examples of overly extravagant consumerism, or the pressure felt by women to conform to certain body types, or anything else.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


Thinking back to this post, it's interesting to get a male perspective on the French relationship with body image from David Lebovitz's fabulous blog. It's not just women who are subject to mass surveillance regarding their weight in France: men are victims of it too... Unfortunately, that's not really what we meant when we asked for equality!

(Some of the comments are really sad: That post definitely struck a cord. I'm French-American but alas, I take after my more "bulky" American father. Thus ever since I was a teenager, I've become accustomed to hearing comments about my weight from my very skinny, very French, family members. If you think the French are honest to friends/acquaintances, you have no idea of how bad it is when it's "en famille", especially to girls..." for example!)

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The right to bare breasts

When the heat is on here in Lyon, sometimes the only thing that makes life bearable is a trip to the outdoor pool. There are many things that strike a British person as a little funny when they visit a French pool. One is that topless bathing is allowed - at our outdoor pool at least. Women of all ages and body types appear to be quite happy bearing their chests as they sunbathe (though I've yet to see anyone who hasn't replaced their bikini top to actually go for a swim.) That said, there are more women with their chests covered than not, a trend which is apparently growing here in France.

I personally don't sunbathe topless. For one thing, I prefer one-piece swimsuits to bikinis - I find they flatter me much more. Perhaps more significantly, I am just too paranoid about any unwelcome attention I might get (though I have to say that I've never seen any blatant oogling going on around our pool). But now I'm wondering whether I should address my discomfort with the issue, buy a stick of sunblock, and bare all. Should I learn to embrace the right to go topless as an important feminist issue, in the same way that it has traditionally been within the French feminist movement?

There's no denying the inequality in dress codes for men and women: in Britain and America, at least, men's chests are acceptable in public, but women's are considered to be strictly for 'private viewings', so to speak. France's tradition of topless sunbathing is supposed to address this imbalance. As for me, the fact that it is partly a fear of catcalls or unwelcome stares that puts me off topless sunbathing is a sign to me that something is amiss. It's proof that society makes me (and others, for surely I'm not the only one) feel uncomfortable about our bodies in a way that men are not made to feel. My fear that I might be increasing my chances of being on the receiving end of predatory comments from men is perhaps exaggerated, but is based on a lifetime's experience of patriarchal society in which women are the object and men the subject of a kind of mass gaze.

Carole Cadwalladr couldn't be more wrong when she states that the best thing women can do now is to cover themselves up. She argues that female nudity has become hackneyed and overused, specifically in the world of advertising, claiming that this has lead to the naked female form becoming banal and uninteresting, if not downright tacky via images of glamour models and in lads mags. Her column fails to see that this is simply another manifestation of the same social symptom which the those first feminist topless sunbathers were fighting against back in the 60s. Back then, a woman's breasts weren't hers to control - society did that for her, and told her cover them up. Today, society has appropriated women's breasts in another way, and made them a tool of titillation and marketing persuasion. In both cases, control over the way her body is used is still not in a woman's own hands. The answer isn't to hide away and ignore the issue, but to redress it...metaphorically speaking. When a woman's decision as to whether she goes topless is not influenced by either a fear of transgressing social mores (and attracting scandal) or a fear of being associated with over-sexualised commercial images (and attracting predatory sexual attention), then we'll have made some progress.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

So why don't French women get fat?

I'm currently in the middle of a summer stay in Lyon, France. Keeping up with my mostly UK/US based blogs (read: 'continuing to waste time on the internet') brings up an interesting point: many stories posted on said blogs are related to the plus-size clothing market - whether it be the debate surrounding Beth Ditto's range for UK plus-sized retailer Evans, or an airline's decision not to produce its flight assistants' uniforms in large sizes. It's a hot topic for Anglo feminists, this continuing discrimination against larger women and what this reveals about society's views of how a woman ought to look - and how much she ought to weight.

In France, it's extremely rare to see a woman who would classify as 'plus-sized'. Of course not every French woman is skinny. But a lot of them are - according to a recent report, there are more very slim women in France than anywhere else in Europe... 'Curvy' - fat - whatever you want to call it - women are scarce here. It's so unusual to see someone who isn't slim that it attracts my attention when I do, despite myself.

So this is the 'French paradox': how can the women of a society which prides itself on its food culture, based around bread, red meat, great frites, excellent butter and cheese, etc. stay so much slimmer than in Britain or America? Books have quite literally been written on the subject. I get the impression that many American and British women imagine that the French either have magic genes or are in possession of some incredible secret which allows them to feast on steak and cheese while guzzling wine and never gain a gram, and long to be the same way.

Well, not me. For what it's worth, while French women's (and French culture's) thinking about food, weight and diet might be healthier in the sense that it leads to lower levels of obesity, I personally don't think it's something that's globally worth trying to emulate. Not, that is, if you oppose the kind of body-fascism that is evident in our culture's mistreatment of larger-sized women.

To put in bluntly, being fat in France is just not acceptable - especially for women (as ever). Of course you can say the same thing about Anglo culture. Apparently, only slender women's bodies are acceptable on our TV and cinema screens, and in our printed press, just as in France. But I would argue that the pressure from others around you to be slim is felt more strongly in France. If you put on a bit of weight, you need to lose it. As fast as you can. Exercise, dieting, magic creams, however you like. You don't talk about it, perhaps... and you certainly act before it's even visible to others, rather than waiting until you go up a size to address the 'problem'. If you could even get to a lower weight than you were at before, all the better. If you're scheduled to go out for dinner then perhaps you shouldn't eat all day, just so you don't have to make a fuss about only having one course in the evening. Coffee and cigarettes will help keep those hunger pangs at bay.

Ah, I generalise. Every woman is different, of course. But still, every culture has its overarching patterns. Let's think back to that report, and the way that la presse féminine received it here in France. From French Marie-Claire: French women are the winners of a contest between European women that's been going on for years! With summer approaching and in the middle of our most drastic diets, let's make the most of the good news! ...The authors of the report were surprised to find that despite our excellent results (or, rather, our victory!) French women aren't happy with their weight. Even though we're the slimmest (and let's underline just how happy we are to hear this), we're also most likely to consider ourselves too fat. According to the report, France is home to a veritable cult of the slender female form: when asked, French women gave their ideal BMI as 19.5 - just at the lower end of the 'normal' range.

Is this kind of culture of eating and dieting really something worth admiring? If this is why French women don't get fat - not magic genes, not unconsciously virtuous eating habits, but rather a state of constant vigilence, self-criticism and inadequacy, then they are perhaps even more victims of body-facism than the larger woman who struggles to find a decent pair of jeans on the British high street.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Stupid things... Elle, June 2009

(The first in an occasional series (depending on how often I buy magazines) in which the choicest morsels of nonsense peddled by the presse féminine will be extracted, analysed and mocked.)

First up, this month's issue of Elle.

Incidentally, both Elle and Vogue have decided to make their current issues 'the body issue'. This makes complete sense, because they never mention dieting, weight, exercise or 'detoxing' in their other issues, ever, nor do they ever fuck with self-image by promoting images of the female form that are impossible for the vast majority of women to achieve. Glad we've cleared that up. Anyway, the result is that June's Elle is full of tales of women's relationships with their bodies.

So without further ado, here's this month's Elle's top five stupid things.

1) Isabel Mohan writes a 'moving' account of her extreme diet and 5 1/2 stone weight loss. This was apparently triggered when a stranger at a festival called out to her, 'Look everyone, it's Beth Ditto!'. Until then, she writes, 'I never felt I stood out to the point where perfect strangers would choose, with a few humiliating words, to ruin my evening.' Weight-based jibes are mean and nasty, but of course, the wisest way to respond to them is go on a crash diet of 500 liquid calories a day!

What makes this so very interesting is that last year, Mohan was made deputy editor of Heat's online presence. The Guardian makes mention of the fact that, back in 2005 at least, she was also one of those responsible for compiling the delightful 'celeb caught on camera' pages that Heat is so fond of. You know, the ones that like to catch people looking less than their best, and make cruel comments about their appearance.

The article itself is an interesting mash of contradictions, as Mohan tries to avoid saying that she feels better about herself now because she is thin, and to face up to what this tells us about society's bullying attitude towards women who are not. When bigger, 'I always had plenty of fun, and that hasn't changed', but then again, 'her weight was the...thing that did get me down'. Go figure.

2) Another of those 'diets to suit your body shape' articles that we've all read a million times throws up some gems: 'Drink green speed up your metabolism'. The study that this claim is probably based on was made on the basis of a test involving only TEN people. Also, 'Cut down on sugar (try fruit...instead)'. Uh, nobody here heard of fructose?

3) The editor in chief has a persistent cold she just can't shake off. After a consultation with Dr Dirk Budka and a course of the 'Ultimate Detox Silver Package' (??!), a highly restrictive diet plan and over two pages of copy, she is in the position to impart this ground-breaking advice to us, her faithful readers: 'If you want to feel healthy and refreshed when you wake up, you have top live and eat healthily. Drink less coffee, sip less wine, learn to wind down at the end of your day gradually and work out what your body does and doesn't need.' Holy cow, I think we have a genius on our hands.

4) Gotta love high-end fashion mags' attempts to make nods towards our recession-hit wallets. Ellen Burney positively delights in it. 'Never has my shopping been so social...I'm turning every night into party night by gathering at friends' houses for some fashion interaction. As we down our glasses of wine, we bring out our finest cast-offs...we adjust hemlines and alter necklines... Well, Ellen, I'm glad that you and your friends have so many cast-offs that you can affort to hack away at them, but a) I don't have cast-offs: I have old clothes that I'm still wearing because I cannot afford replace them at the drop of a hat, and I prefer not to go naked and b) nor do my friends. She also suggests renting clothes instead of buying them. This is hardly a bargain, at £78 for two nights for a Marc Jacobs dress, when most women would think that price at the top end of their budget, even if it bought them a dress they could actually wear for longer than 48 hours.

5) Final mention to a long piece purporting to teach us 'how to beat bikini-shopping phobia' contains the (very true) line that 'Very often, body confidence is way more appealing than body perfection.' But Elle doesn't like to let us off without a challenge! Oh no! Just to make sure it's not too easy to achieve that body confidence, the entire article is packed through with photos of the tallest, skinniest, catwalk models you can imagine, clad in bikinis of the skimpiest variety.

So thanks, Elle. But you know what? After reading pages and pages of scrutinising, analysing and obsessing about the female body, I can't say I feel a whole lot better about my body. In fact, I feel a whole lot worse about it. I feel worse about it in ways I didn't even know I ought to feel worse about it until I just read it in your magazine! Maybe if you just stopped obsessing about our bodies for a while, we'd have a chance to realise that we are far more than just a body, and that there are better things to devote our time, energy and thoughts to. But nothing sells like neurosis, after all.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Polly Vernon and the 'slapper' shoes

Let's not even get started on the Observer Woman monthly supplement as an entity.  Really, let's not.  Let's just think about the latest edition's opening article, written by that friend of women everywhere, Polly 'Cocktail Girl' Vernon.  It's about shoes.  Of course, I read it before I read anything in the rest of that serious and weighty (and liberal/leftwing - remember that, for later) Sunday paper.  I can be shallow like that.  Shoot me.    

Our Polly has a problem with the current trend for ever-more-vertiginous footwear.  "When did the slapper shoe become so damned acceptable?" she asks.  
I'll concede first that she has an initial point - a smidgen of one.  Women's shoes have definitely been getting higher and higher over the past two years or so.  I put on a pair of Miu Mius yesterday that I haven't worn for three years because last time I did so, I nearly killed myself by teeteringly uncontrollably, and at ever-increasing speed, down the slope of our drive before literally smashing into the side of a waiting taxi.  
Warning: these shoes could kill.

The weird thing?  Compared to what I've been wearing recently, they didn't feel half as high as they used to.  A little wander around Office, Topshop or Kurt Geiger will confirm the diagnosis. 

So with that minor concession out of the way, let's take a closer look at Polly's argument.  She thinks such vertiginous shoes are both "ugly" and impractical, turning your feet "into clomping cart-horsey parodies of sexiness".  Fair enough.  But slapper shoes?  Come on.  What brilliant bit of editorial decision-making allowed such cheap, nasty, misogynous writing to go to the printers?

Where I grew up, in the south-east of England, a "slapper" meant a girl who was thought to be a bit cheap - common - nasty.  To put it bluntly, it meant a girl who was sexually promiscuous.  It was a slightly less harsh word for "slut", and the OED backs up that interpretation.  As, I should add, does Polly's article.  You might think I'm reading too much into this one word - it could just be used to mean 'cheap', 'tasteless', 'tacky', perhaps?  Oh, but no.  No, Ms Vernon actually spells it out for us.  Such footwear is, apparently, "as synonymous with the wardrobe of your average pole dancer as nipple tassels and fake tan".  It's "an all-round dodgy look with dodgier associations".

Gosh, there are a million more things I could say about such phrases, but let's lay out the basic logic behind the article: really high shoes are like shoes that strippers wear, and that makes really high shoes inherently BAD.  Because women who earn money by stripping are really goddam awful women, right?  (Perhaps the next issue will feature an article on how suits are just unacceptable on men, because so many men wearing suits visit strip clubs where they pay women to take their clothes off for them.  But then again, let's not hold our breath...)  Strippers are equated with slappers because all strippers have loose sexual morals, right?  And of course, it's just totally fine to a) make negative judgements about women by looking the shoes they are wearing and b) for those judgements to be based upon their sexual behaviour, should it fail to conform to your view of how women should use their sexuality.

I don't want to get into the strip-club debate here.  But women have been fighting long and hard against the repression of their sexuality, not just by men, but by other women.  Such repression is what lies behind such well-worn insults as "slut" and "slapper".  Women whose sexuality hasn't conformed to the society's limits - limits which, so often throughout history, have been hypocritically imposed by men - have been derided, both by men and by other women, by the use of words like this.  For them to be thrown around so ignorantly and with such joy (she clearly thinks she's really, really witty) by an Observer journalist - by any journalist - makes me fume.

Am I taking this too seriously?  Am I being too damn humorless?  I just don't think you have to be a close-reading literature-studying feminazi to spot this one.  That joke isn't funny any more, Polly.