One of many seemingly trivial things that infuriates me is the sight of the strappy summer top or dress. This is an item of clothing under which most women would want to wear a bra and yet, unless it is the fashion, bra straps are not meant to be on show. Up till now there’s been no real solution to this. Strapless bras slip down, while transparent bra straps have never fooled anyone. However, the bra-free alternative — nipples at your navel — is even worse. So you see these clothes in shop windows and in magazines and after a while you start to think “is it me? Do other women have breasts of helium? Who — apart from the woman who’s buying the smallest size — is meant to wear these things?” It is a mystery and like many fashion-related mysteries, it’s one that will make you feel a failure at womanhood for no reason whatsoever.
Thankfully, this will soon change. Because it is 2014 and we all (nominally) believe in equality, something is being done to remedy this state of affairs. From now on women’s clothes will be made to go on actual bodies — living organisms that move and age and sag — rather than hardened plastic mannequins! Only kidding. Women will get the same old clothes as before and will be expected (and fail) to live up to the same old porny expectations whenever they strip off. This isn’t some matriarchal utopia, you know! But on the bright side, women can opt to have “internal bras” inserted beneath their skin and hooked onto their rib cages. No one’s really sure what the long-term impact of doing this will be but hey, if nothing else it’ll provide you with a brief window during which at least one bit of your body looks the way a woman’s body is supposed to look. Put a paper bag over your head and stuff the rest of yourself into a sack and maybe you’ll get away with it.
Tempted though I am, I’m not going to spend several years saving for one of these internal bras, just as I am not saving for Botox or breast implants or hip bone sharpening or whatever the next thing is. The truth is, I am sick of it. I am sick of the way in which women’s bodies are viewed as imperfect works in progress, problems to be solved before they are fit to go before the male gaze (and yet never good enough). Moreover, I am sick of the way in which the more we venerate Real Bodies via patronising adverts and self-help guides, the more amendments we nevertheless expect women to make. Oh, go on! For you! Not for anyone else, it’s all your choice! We can talk about freedom and self-expression all we like but I look at the diagrams for the internal bra, thinking of all the unnecessary surgery, and to me it looks like a form of self-imposed torture.
It’s not that I believe our bodies are perfect in their “natural” state. We’re all of us mortal, hitting our physical peak pretty early on, after which it’s downhill all the way. On that basis I think it’s great that humans are intelligent and resourceful enough to say “screw you, Nature, I’m gonna mess with your evil plans!” Nonetheless, our priorities are skewed. We focus less on what would make people strong, pain-free and happy, focussing instead a heterosexual man’s “right” to an orgasm. We care more about women’s breasts heading south than what happens to their pelvic floor. Female incontinence in later life is considered insignificant, if not joke-worthy, compared to male impotence. There is no such thing as eternal youth but if we messed with nature for the good of all rather than to turn on the entitled few, I suspect there would be more long-term happiness for everyone.
Sadly, most criticism of plastic surgery veers towards a misguided fetishisation of “realness”, coupled with open contempt for women such as Katie Price and Alicia Douvall. In truth our standards for being “real” grow more prescriptive by the day. We may pat ourselves on the back for our open-minded response to bearded Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst, but this is standard beauty with a standard beard. What would our response have been to a woman with a hairy chin due to PCOS or a trans woman who didn’t pass? Ridicule, I suspect. The realness that is hair where you don’t want it to grow, or breasts that resemble balloons clinging on to air several weeks after the party (as mine do, post-breastfeeding) isn’t the realness we want. We are allowed curves, within reason (hip to waist ratios to be confirmed by Closer and Heat). More than that, however, is just too real. Hence the arrival of yet more surgery to ensure what whatever we do, it will be too much or too little. Until our priorities change, bodies that do amazing things will nevertheless feel like failures.