In Search of the Real Woman

By Sarah Van Horn

Recently, a report called Blurred lines: Exploring Contemporary Attitudes to Gender Portrayal in the Media — carried out by the BBC — found that there is a desire amongst audiences to see more ‘real women’ on television. Whilst the notion of a ‘real woman’ is curious, it’s easy to recognise where this desire is coming from.

Our media unabashedly exposes us to images of women with perfectly contoured, tanned, bleached body parts: a single blueprint for an ideal feminine beauty. And yes, maybe we are aware that she has been nipped, tucked and photo-shopped, but this does not take away from the fact that she is what is presented as the ideal: what we should be aspiring towards. A destructive culture of comparison has been created whereby women are taught to compare themselves to an unattainable standard of beauty.

That said, I do find the notion of suddenly populating our screens with ‘real women’ problematic, for a number of reasons. First of all, it begs the question: what is a ‘real woman’? The term suggests that not all women are real women. More specifically it tends to be used to refer to women who are not skinny, as in the ‘real women have curves’ trope that has been circulating over the past few years. But skinny women are real women;  so are fat women. So are women who have children and women who don’t, and women who work outside the home and women who don’t. Women who get Botox injections and have boob-jobs are also real women. They are ALL real women, because they are human beings. Suggesting that some women are not ‘real’ while others are, comes dangerously close to reinforcing the existing restrictive binaries into which women have historically been placed (such as virgin-whore). Real women are complex and multifaceted, just like real men.

The other concern about the notion of promoting visibility of so-called ‘real women’ is that it risks making the public humiliation of women and their bodies permissible. I suspect certain tabloids would justify photographing female celebrities in highly intimate situations as a means to meeting the demand for ‘real’ women; providing us with proof that they are REAL, just like us, because they too have cellulite! Thanks, but no thanks. All this is doing is adding to a nasty culture of competition between women with an incessant focus on bodily imperfection.

Why does ‘real’ always seem to refer to how a woman looks? If we insist on using ‘real’ as the goal, why not include the real conversations, ambitions, lives and worries of women? It’s time to move on.  All women are real women. What’s unreal is the unwavering focus on their bodies.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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