The last couple of years has not been so bad for feminism. Yes, we do still experience sexism, we are still paid unequally based on our sexual differences, and our nipples are still heavily sexually loaded despite our will but, at least, we are heading in a direction of conversations and debates on how to create a society that is equal for all genders. But if we ever are to reach that point, we need to unpick all those aspects that underpin gender inequality, why they still exist and how they can cease to exist.
One of those aspects is that of putting women into fixed categories. I like to think that we have grown towards a more nuanced understanding of women’s personalities and that there is little need to put us into categories. And in many cases we have, but when it comes to female celebrities, categorisation does happen.
It is especially so in the case of female celebrities who fall into the category of ‘sex symbols’. Though not all of them, there seems to be a subcategory of female sex symbols which is relatively rigid, shaped by aspects such as silicon breasts, blonde hair and plump lips.
Often these women are presented as slightly less intellectual and a bit too obsessed with their own looks. A very recent example of this is Norway’s top blogger Sophie Elise, a 21-one- year-old woman who has had two cosmetic surgeries including breast implants and nose job as well as Restylane injections in her lips. Almost immediately, the media and her readers put her in this category: a sex doll, only to be judged by her appearance and her ‘dumb’ statements. The moment she expressed her concerns for environmental issues, the dreadful treatment of circus animals and the prejudices towards refugees, she was ridiculed by the tabloid press and by media experts. She also flashed at an awards show recently to demonstrate how tired she was of solely being evaluated by her looks. It seems to be that when a woman succumbs to the pressure of ideal beauty, she is deprived of the right to discuss issues besides beauty and boobs, only to be seen through the lens of sexuality.
In the latest issue of The Gentlewoman, Pamela Anderson follows in a similar vein of frustration. “People have a very fixed image of who I am and what I can do,” she said. One of the leading newspapers in Norway pointed out the irony of first having breast implants and then complaining about the immense body pressure women experience. However, what they did not point out is that the choice to undertake cosmetic surgery, at a very young and insecure age, is a choice very likely to be influenced by a patriarchal society that primarily focuses on women in terms of appearance.
What these concerned media experts fail to take into account is that a woman — cosmetic surgery or not — can actually be so nuanced and complex as to care about different things at once. Like we all do, we care about issues that affect us as a society, about the TV shows we watch and the conditioner we use. That doesn’t mean that the right to speak up about serious as well as shallow matters should be robbed from us. So why is it okay to do so in the case of these women? Is it because they chose to put themselves in the light of the media? Because they chose to go to more extreme lengths to meet a beauty ideal that we are being fed on a daily basis?
In the case of women who carry out operations to meet society’s ideal of beauty, we are quick to condemn. Is it because it is too uncomfortable to realise that it is not these women who create the pressure of ideal beauty, but rather, the patriarchal structures of society who so repeatedly tells us that we are evaluated first on how we look, and then for our intellect? Is it really so strange that in the midst of this pressure, some succumb to it, and let the wonders of cosmetic surgery revile the burden of never being pretty enough, or thin enough? What we need to condemn instead are these patriarchal structures that prevent a more diverse representation of women.
This issue is not a new one in feminist conversations. One way to tackle gender discrimination is to end objectification — an obvious goal on the feminist agenda. But we need to repeat this conversation again and again until we don’t have to fight for the choice of when we can be empowered by our sexuality and when we can be empowered by our intellect. Even though feminists (and everyone else for that matter) have a responsibility to dismantle and challenge the idealistic conception of beauty, we must also keep in mind that when women choose to have cosmetic surgery it is not them we should try to change, but the decisions of a media industry who consistently feeds us with a homogenous picture of ideal beauty.