A 16-year-old girl feels pressured into posing nude for a national publication yet it’s not until she’s in her late thirties, and a very famous model, that she reveals her misgivings. It’s all rather sad, partly for the girl in question, Kate Moss, but mainly for people like Alex Needham, culture editor of the Guardian, a man who risks having his enjoyment of groundbreaking art spoiled by the fact that bare-breasted ingenues have voices as well as tits.
In response to Moss’s own comments regarding a shoot she did for The Face in 1990, Needham has stepped in to reassure her that however bad it made her feel, she “took one for the team”:
At a stroke, the pictures redefined the prevailing ideals of beauty. Moss says that she felt self-conscious about the mole on her breast, but the fact that she showed it did us all a favour. Suddenly power-dressing, pointy bras and wearing two inches of slap were out, while wonky teeth, greasy hair and generally looking normal were in. Moss was recognisably a young woman with a personality – and from Croydon, south London, at that. She wasn’t some passive fantasy glamourpuss. The reason many women feel an affinity with her – the fact that she is unpolished, unapologetic and up for a laugh – starts right here in these early pictures.
Needham – a recognised expert on how women in general, and Moss in particular, ought to respond to arty shots of naked female bodies – tells it like it is. Ladies, shots like these helped us. They killed off the 1980s power-dressing bitch from Hell and replaced her with the waif-like, unobtrusive muse. Kind of revolutionary, don’t you think? Shouldn’t we all be thankful?
I have nothing against Kate Moss. Even if she’s annoying in the cold light of day, at least with her you’d be able to drink enough booze for it not to matter. But what frustrates me about Needham’s line of argument is just how unoriginal it is – and how it could be applied to every beautiful, perved-over woman, ever. Time and again, a distorted pseudo-feminist message is eked out of the way in which attractive women are held up as impossible icons for us to follow. It doesn’t matter that we might want other choices. Kate Moss is here, with her “greasy” hair and “wonky” teeth – what more could you need? Aren’t you feeling that affinity yet?
In 1990 I was an insecure teenager in the throes of anorexia. While I wasn’t particularly interested in the messages magazines such as The Face were throwing at me, they fell in my path all the same, tripping me up and knocking me off course. It’s hard enough to work out how to be without the rules changing from day to day. Before Kate Moss sacrificed herself so that womankind could rejoice in someone “generally looking normal”(!), Linda Evangelista was telling interviewers she wouldn’t wake up for less than $10,000. That, too, was meant to be empowering. The supermodels, the glamazons that Moss came to replace, were sold to us as women in control of their lives and their choices (providing they chose not to eat). We were told not to believe they were weak or exploited because everything, ever, is Feminism Inc. Every woman, ever, is just like you (only pretty).
For every beautiful woman there’s a flaw that makes her “human” – yet this “humanity” somehow becomes the excuse for ongoing objectification and dehumanisation. Marilyn Monroe? She was a size 16! Audrey Hepburn? She didn’t have tits! Today’s models? Look, they’ve all got gaps in their teeth! Imperfection – something that makes the beautiful people so quirky and different, albeit in a terribly homogenous way - is a thing we’re meant to celebrate. We’re meant to see it as reassurance that we’re okay, and yet we all know it’s total crap. We don’t look like these women. We share the imperfections but not the beauty. This is rubbed in our faces every day. And what’s more, I don’t particularly want to “celebrate” my saggy tits or greasy hair. Even if I were kinda fond of them – and I am, of the tits, at least – I want to value and be valued for more meaningful (and less unsavoury) things.
On a recent plane journey I watched the first two episodes of Girls. Before I’d got to the opening credits I’d been primed by everything I’d read to a) notice just how white everyone was (which they were) and b) feel “impressed” at Lena Dunham’s “bravery” in exposing her non-thin body on camera. To be honest, I quite enjoyed the episodes but the supposed “liberation” in seeing another woman’s naked flesh didn’t happen for me. It was a distraction, this external pressure to value not words but ounces of fat and the supposed daring that is linked to their exposure. I get the impression that no one forces Dunham to strip off – after all, she scripts her own show. I wonder, however, if she intended the reception of her work to be reduced to a patronizing deconstruction of her appearance. She is deemed courageous for what is surely the least of her achievements (we can all be marginally podgy and strip off – I for one find it a total doddle).
Dunham might not be Kate Moss, but the same old excuses come into play. Whatever the context, we are looking at naked women. We are judging them primarily on how they look and regardless of whether they’re being exploited, we risk reducing their status. You can call it art if you want to, but please don’t call it revolutionary.