Britney, Bikinis & Bourgeois “Body Image” Feminism

When we think of the performer Britney Spears, “brave” is not a descriptor that comes easily to mind. When Spears’ famously disastrous lot has been reported, tabloid media generally prefer terms like “blonde”, “divorced” or “drunk”. The 28-year-old singer has hardly been known for her daring.

In recent days, Spears, formerly understood as the sort of pop off-cut whose uneven life long since eclipsed her talent, has been reborn a renegade.

Entertainment reporters at MTV described Spears as “bold”.

Local site ninemsn has called her “awesome”.

Melbourne’s Herald Sun, an outlet long secure with hyperbole, went a little further yesterday crowning Spears the new feminist regent.

Somehow, a woman who had commenced her career with the request to Hit Me Baby One More Time has re-emerged, as the UK’s Daily Mail has it, “to highlight the pressure exerted on women.”

A bold, brave and awesome Spears has led us to feminist reform not, on this occasion, by chaining herself to a municipal building. She did it by wearing a pink bikini.

As spokesmodel for a US line of cut-rate fashion, Spears recently underwent a photoshoot in her jocks. She has won approbation for releasing untouched versions of these images and, apparently, posing a challenge to misogynist rule.

Spears is the latest to join a chorus line of female celebrity eager to be viewed as “real”. In recent months, Australian models Jennifer Hawkins and Sarah Murdoch have both appeared sans maquillage or Photoshop on the covers of national magazines. This month in the US, former reality TV star and singer Jessica Simpson adorned the cover of Marie Claire without a hint of slap and recent days have seen Demi Moore shot au naturel while performing charitable works.

In fairness to the coolly beautiful Moore, we should note that this positive press coverage was likely due less to design and more to an under-supply of make-up artists in Haiti. Whatever the case, Moore’s image now joins a library deemed an essential reference by many in the fight for female “empowerment”.

Prominent writer and lobbyist Mia Freedman is among many bright Australian women who hold that the sight of a little cottage cheese on celebrity thighs has the potential to “empower”.

My own view is that such “real”, “bold” images are every bit as useful to the ongoing feminist struggle as, say, a discount voucher for a push-up bra. Pictures of gorgeous ladies looking a little less gorgeous than they normally might serve no real civic purpose beyond selling product.

I recall an era when feminism’s purview was not limited to banging on about the need for more fat chicks in glossy magazines. While others fight for the right to force-feed Kate Moss, I continue antique fretting over equal pay, domestic violence and federal representation. At 40, I am old and clearly out of step with a movement that demands Size 14 representation. And, at 40, I am quite inured to life in a nation that tolerates only the merest debate on feminism.

So, really, I shouldn’t give a toss that popular discussion on “women’s issues” has been reduced to dress size and make-up. And I wouldn’t. Save for the fact that there is mounting evidence that bold, brave and awesome images of women have little or negative social impact on female viewers. And save for the fact that Federal monies are being disbursed on something called The National Advisory Group on Body Image.

Minister for Youth Kate Ellis has appointed Freedman and others to the group to address body image; apparently “one of the top three concerns for young Australians.” Ellis did not disclose in her statement to press the nature of the other concerns but we can only presume these included the speed at which the iPhone app for Facebook delivers status updates.

Yes. This just in: heat is hot, water is wet and teenagers are obsessed with their appearance. As such, let’s spend money on developing an industry code of conduct so that we can all enjoy the spectacle of more cottage cheese on Britney’s thighs.

Sheesh. Just use the cash to buy the little fatties a girdle.

“I got to wear the cutest clothes and they are perfect for summer,” said Spears to press yesterday. “My favourite set-up was against the gigantic wall of pink cotton candy,” she said, adding to a powerful feminist narrative foretold by Naomi Wolf.

In her pink bikini, Britney is history’s newest Pankhurst. Fight for your right to broadly publish cellulite ladies. Knock yourselves out. Better yet, knock me out and revive me when the struggle for real gender equality resumes.

This work originally appeared on the op ed site at the ABC. As I’ve been a little too busy with work of late to produce a decent blog post, I thought I’d try and pass this off as new, exciting comment.

34 comments for “Britney, Bikinis & Bourgeois “Body Image” Feminism

  1. April 24, 2010 at 11:32 am

    Great blog post as usual.

    I am also sick of this feminist lite, where feminist PHD’s are now about “Women portrayals in Vampire Films” There are real issues that continue to affect women.

    One of my bug bears at the moment is the outcry about reality TV show Jersey Shore (Ok I know this is a bit lightweight), where it is deemed to portray Italian/Americans in a bad light. However not one freaking peep about how the women are portrayed and how we got to a point 40 years since the start of the feminist movement where girls think dancing is grinding pelvis to pelvis with guys. How is this not demeaning. Where women think the only way to attract a man is to barely cover their enhanced breasts, AND to compete with other women for these barely articulate guys. Ok maybe the show is a bit like schoolies week at the Gold Coast, but Andrea Dworkin would be spinning in her grave.

    PS – A non-photo shopped body of Jennifer Hawkins does nothing for my body image in fact it could make me feel worse. I used to comfort myself that they WERE photoshopped.

    • April 24, 2010 at 11:55 am

      It’s odd that you should mention Jersey Shore, Reality. I was just thinking about it. Or, more to the point, the fact of its “ironic” hipster appeal just this morning. It’s just a very sad and, I think, very racist program. It appeals to the nastier impulses of MTV’s tertiary educated viewing segment.
      Why is it okay to promulgate this stereotype of the Guido? I am certain there are many Italo-Americans just spitting chips. As for Snooki and her empowerment? Frankly, I couldn’t give a shit. They’re all hellish people. In fact, the Shore is a powerful argument for eugenics.
      I jest, of course.
      However. I do now refer to my abdomen as The Situation.

  2. urakur
    April 24, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Danmmmn right…this is not feminism but consumerism.

    I too as a 43year old male am sick and tired of being subjected to this dull crap !

  3. Rosa Lux
    April 24, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Well said Helen, as usual. I too believe that there are HUGE issues facing women and mainstream feminism has become as sweet as the cotton candy that Britney favours as her backdrop. It’s hip to be a femo, just make sure you don’t push the boundaries too far or offend the men.
    HOWEVER, I think that the way women are portrayed in the media is a huge problem and young women (and older) continue to starve themselves for an unattainable body that was a mere fantasy in the first place. When women’s minds are occupied with such obsessions it serves to undermine their confidence and intellectual vibrancy. Yes, granted that some women don’t have much of the latter but what I’m trying to say is that body image is a big issue, but I am in certain agreeance with you that there are bigger issues to vocalise and get your puppies out for! It sounds like you are reducing body image to a mere irrelevance, which I don’t think is the case.

  4. April 24, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    I hear ya. Or, rather, I read ya, Rosa. But my project here is not to discount the impact “media” have on individuals but to encourage others to think about it a little differently.
    As I’m certain you’re aware, the Fasting Girl phenom pre-dates mass media by a century. Anorectics existed long before Kate or any of her thin grandmothers were born. Given that eating disorders are paraded as proof of the media’s noxious influence, I think it’s worth remembering this. And thinking, perhaps, that dysmorphic disorders of women (and men)have a great deal more to do with a pretty damn old construction of our identities and not, after all, something that was written in the last fifty years.
    I’ve worked in electronic and print media my entire adult life. When I commenced in that industry, I upheld the notion that we held great sway; that the decisions we made in broadcast or text impacted people directly. Now, I think that’s a bit of a crock. Certainly, mass media has an effect; although perhaps not a terribly measurable one. We do tend to over-play it.
    And, frankly, this idea of the infirm woman is one of which I’m getting terribly sick. Like silly middle class bitches don’t have the savvy to separate reality from its media representation. I wish they’d shut up and do something a bit more useful than “reforming” stupid bloody ladies glossies. At what point were we supposed to get any sense of self-determination from frigging Cosmo magazine? It is now and will always be utter shit. And we are naive or deluded or disingenuous in suggesting that piles of shit can be polished or reformed.

  5. April 26, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Antoinette Kennedy was on Radio National last week talking about mandatory sentencing and the criminal justice system. She told a little parable in relation to judges and their effect on crime: “the story is told of two men downriver, a body comes down the river and they pull the body out, and then more bodies keep coming down the river and they keep pulling them out, and finally, one of them says to the other, ‘You stay here and do what you can and I’ll go upstream and see what’s happening.’”
    She was making the point that in the justice system judges are pulling the bodies out, and what the hell are the rest of us doing up-river, but the story holds up equally well for this. Body image and the media are down-river, what the hell are the rest of us doing upstream?

  6. Lisa
    April 27, 2010 at 11:28 am

    And another question to ask entirely – why does Britney need to be in a bikini AT ALL? I am just plain sick of having to look at women in underpants or swimwear. It’s not that I don’t think they look nice, it’s just that it’s way out of proportion to the amount of time women actually spend clad in their swimwear or just underwear.
    Look at 90% of pop song film clips, 100% of mens razor commercials, beer commercials… the list goes on… I’m just bored with it. It turns me off buying certain brands; it makes me dismiss most “R&B” music as sexist cr*p! So yes – media only has so much of an effect.

  7. April 28, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    There’s only one reason why we’re seeing a fuckload of media coverage about women’s mags and body image – because women are getting pissed off again about equal pay and decent parental leave. Unairbrushed photos of celebrities are the shiny things to distract us. And if they were serious about it, they’d also be targeting mags like Zoo and Ralph, where the airbrushing is out of control. I read somewhere that there are waves of feminism because the patriarchy keeps fighting back.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put the kettle on and make myself a cup of self-righteous indignation.

  8. ..
    April 30, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    It could be said that women are clever enough to separate reality from media, but I recently realised I had literally been brainwashed into not eating enough by following fashion magazines, websites (lookbook/tumblr especially) and advertisements (anyone see the H&M ads in england recently!?) doesn’t anyone else find it worrying, given the amount of media images we are exposed to each day, that lives can be controlled by pictures of women we’ve never met? I’m 21 and so obsessed by my weight that I’m already jealous of younger girls – 15 year olds with disposable cash and skinny limbs. Conversations with my friend often end with “they’ll not be so fit when they hit 16 and it all goes south!”

    • October 31, 2013 at 2:54 pm

      This may be your experience but data do not support your assertions

  9. MsFeasance
    May 1, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Here via Jezebel, and I was very disappointed and disgusted by this post. Yes, Britney Spears is no Betty Friedan, but this is hardly new ground to tread. There’s plenty of room in well-articulated feminism for both body image activism (and by extension Western hegemony and the spread of Western beauty ideals) and pay equality struggles.
    At least, there was in 1968.

    • May 1, 2010 at 12:04 pm

      Hello MsFeasance. Whose nick, incidentally, I admire. Thank you for recalling 1968 as I’m prompted to think supportive things about the workers of the world; it’s just ticked over into May Day, here. And thank you for being bothered to comment here where we might enjoy a less enflamed, more ladylike discussion than that unfurling on Jezebel as we type.
      The piece, of course, is a polemic. Within the OpEd context of its original publication, this was understood. As it was understood that I have no genuine wish to stuff anyone into a girdle. But DAMN, now I’ve read some of the very wry comments over at the Jezebels, I wish I’d made more of the corset analogy in my post.
      Because, I really have felt in recent years that “body image”, important as it is, has become the foundation garment of feminism. Of course, this is an essential topic for discussion. But it annoys me that this is the almost the sine qua non of what remains of the “movement”.
      I believe that bodies are central to debate. Here’s a more scholarly piece I wrote about that a year or so ago Nonetheless it really does annoy me, to the point that I will write incendiary things, that most broadstream debate about “women’s issues” centres around the thing we call “body image”.
      (Here’s a far less scholarly thing I wrote about that. Warning, lots of swears )
      Like it or not, the Britney thing received substantial coverage. I thought it was worth questioning the now axiomatic idea that “real” pictures of “real” women make a dent (I refuse to make another cellulite gag here even though I’m a bit of a kneejerk Australian brat) in anything more substantial than our morning reading. Why in heaven’s name are we looking to media conglomerates or marketeers to deliver us from a narrow notion of beauty? Mass culture is ipso facto a one-size-fits-most proposition. Britney’s little imperfection (which was, I restate, widely reported the western world over; this is not to imply that I think she’s understood as a feminist but, quite distinctly, the premier topic for popular feminist discussion a week or so ago) is hardly the immunisation against the disease of body dysmorphia as so many would have it.
      If the ladies at Jezebel will let me, I would love to write a piece on the presumed connection between mass culture and eating disorders. As you are likely aware, there are many academics who insist that the Fasting Girl, by way of example, predates any of the pictures you might see in Seventeen by one hundred years. As mentioned above in the lovely analogy about what we are doing up-river, it’s worth looking at the origins of this stuff rather than lavishing our attention on Britney. Which we do. We really do.
      Again, thanks for your comment. I really appreciate that you bothered to pop over here rather than stay over there where everyone agrees that I’m a horrible cow : – )

    • May 2, 2010 at 2:10 pm

      MsFeasance, where did you go?

  10. May 1, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    I responded to this after seeing it on jezebel.com — though I found it through http://twitter.com/heartlessdoll/status/13161705339 where they’re not super impressed with the piece.

    http://www.tsaphanbabe.net/2010/04/body-image-celebrities-and-feminism.html

    • May 1, 2010 at 1:10 pm

      Hi TsaphanBabe. As I have been Not Super-Impressing people for most of my adult professional life, I don’t really mind. :-)
      As you say in your post response (how meta, how Post post-modern of us!) conversations ARE important and I welcome the chance to continue the exchange here rather than to continue to provide grist in absentia to the You Go Girl mill currently churning out the predictable “If just one woman with anorexia is saved!” contemporary feminist stock-in-trade.
      Do we really hope for salvation from ourselves from mass visual culture? Are we really settling for the possibility of lukewarm reform now and not still demanding revolution. Or, better yet, outrunning sad-sack I Blame The Media whining and daring not to give a crap and admitting that YES if the register of a woman’s moral condition is still her appearance in the big bad world, whether close to or far from the phallic ideal, we should probably just stop worrying how we measure up. I don’t want to get all Paglia. But I do think this infirmary feminism is really self-indulgent. And, mostly, I think we spend far too much time justifying self-indulgence by re-figuring it as feminism. It all comes down to this: we’re still worried abotu how we look. I’m sick of it.

  11. Liz
    May 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Yes. In my college soc. class, the one “feminist” book we got was Naomi Wolf, and all of my upper-class classmates thought she was the second coming. We got gems like “women can’t make any progress economically or politically until this beauty myth stuff is all dealt with.” OH RLY? My feminist group in college was into “love your body” day, and I can’t remember any talk about women and labor markets outside of the economics department. But I’m sure we all loved our bodies, so there’s that.

  12. gimcrackgirl
    May 1, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    here via Feminist Philosophers.

    I agree with them – this post is really interesting.

    I think the points about the historic Fasting Girl are spot on – but i guess the question (which I’ve been considering when reading The F Word . Org recently) is to do with prevalence of eating disorders in conjunction with global media.

    Check out Feminist Philosophers for a response to this blog.

    I’d also suggest checking out The F Word . Org for a discussion of the body image commission mentioned above and the relevance of it.

    • May 1, 2010 at 8:51 pm

      Hello gimcrackgirl. Thank you. “Interesting” is a kind response to a post that has been largely pilloried by our American sisters. To be clear (which I, rather erroneously, thought I had been in the piece) my argument is not with “body positive feminism”, or whatever the kids are calling it these days, per se. I rather think feeling good about one’s form, feminine or otherwise, sounds like a good idea. My objection, rather, is to the prevalence of this discussion. It occurs unstintingly in electronic and print media and I fail to understand why these ladies sans make up et al are applauded as “brave” when, really, their premier achievement, particularly in the architectured case of the Britney Bikini, is t enhance their “brand”. It all smacks of faux liberation to me and reminds me of the 1990s raunch empowerment to which many women, led by Ariel Levy, now object. I think your woman Natasha Walter is now on the same bandwagon. It also reminds me of those old Virginia Slims ads that featured a picture of a post-Steinem lass and featured the slogan “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”. Oh, yes. Yo have. Now you can smoke AND complain about how dudes just don’t think you’re pretty.
      As for the Fasting Girl stuff. If I find the time between work obligations and feel a little more love, I would be very happy to look at theories that underplay the role of media in body dysmorphic disorders. FYI, English expat Elspeth Probyn has written a great deal about this. These days, rather interestingly, she is now researching food markets. Now THERE’S something to get your (pink, frilly) knickers in a knot about.
      Anyhoo. I wanted to say thank you for posting a response that, unlike most of those at Jezebel, does not undermine my argument by calling me “old” or “our of touch” or “disgusting”.

  13. gimcrackgirl
    May 3, 2010 at 6:47 am

    thank you so much for your response! I really appreciate it, because a lot of sites i’ve commented on before can be, well, nasty or ignore your post.

    Interesting may have been a loaded word – sorry for that, but let me rephrase – what you have written really interested me. I hope i didn’t come across hostile – i probably didn’t choose my words very well, as i was getting ready for work whist reading.

    I’ll follow up your suggested reading as soon as i can – would you be able to recommend any specific texts (or is that a bit lazy of me?).

    I’ll also be bookmarking this site as something i can follow. I know there’s actually quite a lot of feminist stuff around, but this post has stood out from a lot of other things i’ve read. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  14. Michel X.
    May 4, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    I trust that we feel the same way about men and washboard abs, right?

    I ask simply because acquiring said abs also requires starvation: eating less than ten calories per pound of body mass while maintaining vigorous exercise. I do realize (and agree with, to a certain extent, the editorial’s piece about the existence of more pressing issues).

    I should also perhaps take the time, however, as a male who has suffered from both megarexia and anorexia, that there’s a real (and serious) social imbalance when it comes to body image and eating disorders, and especially their treatment. While it seems (I have no empirical evidence) true that the general portrayal of shoddy and doctored female icons is more prevalent (and it seems likely that there’s more pressure for women to look a certain way), those pressures and problems also exist for men. Unfortunately, men don’t have access (or, rather, they aren’t made overtly available to us in the same way that they are for young women) to the kinds of resources that women have developed in response to these unrealistic demands–after all, eating disorders are a female thing. Men don’t get them. The result is that we just don’t know where to turn, and we end up wallowing alone in our own misery.

    While the issue of body image is relatively small potatoes, since its extremes affect only a small portion of our population, it is its effect on the larger, silent majority (both male and female) that should be of particular concern.

    • May 4, 2010 at 3:49 pm

      Mais oui, Michel. What species of arse would I be if I did not feel something for those ravaged by dysmorphic disorders. My point is: (a) retouched photos and eating disorders may not be in such intimate company as is largely presumed. See great comment above re “up the river” (b) I am effing bored of applauding “brave” celebrities for using the latest branding device.

      Having said this: as ever, when it comes to matters of perceived fragility, men are utterly ignored. That sucks. Dudes have feelings too.

  15. Michel X.
    May 4, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Agh, apologies for the typos.

    • May 4, 2010 at 3:49 pm

      Would you like me to sub-edit them out, M?

  16. Michel X.
    May 4, 2010 at 5:00 pm

    Naw, no worries. I’ll live ‘em down. Thanks for the offer, however.

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