Tag Archives: body image

Movember versus Muffember

2 Dec

Now, I know the main readership of this blog is of the female variety, so I’m sure you will have joined with me yesterday in congratulating yourself on the passing of another “Movember” – the annual campaign to raise awareness and funds for the fight against prostate and testicular cancer – hopefully without any incidents of public embarrassment or moustache-rash. Chem’s specimen this year led to the nickname ‘Mexican;’ however disappointingly few of my other male friends decided to participate this year. In case your menfolk crown themselves with moustaches all year round and you have no idea what the fuss is about, here is a brief summary from the official website for Movember UK:

“On Movember 1st, guys register at Movember.com with a clean-shave face and then for the rest of the month, these selfless and generous men, known as Mo Bros, groom, trim and wax their way into the annals of fine moustachery. Mo Sistas are the women who register to support the men in their lives, raising funds by seeking sponsorship for their Mo-growing efforts. Mo Bros effectively become walking, talking billboards for the 30 days of November and through their actions and words raise awareness by prompting private and public conversation around the often ignored issue of men’s health.” 

Last year over 112,000 men and women officially supported the campaign [although many I suspect, like Chem, grew a ‘tache for awareness but didn’t actually raise sponsorship], raising £11.7 million. The Independent claims over 250,000 people joined in this year, with a current total of £14.7 million raised as part of a global total of £63 million! If you’re not getting an impression of the grandeur and scale of the event yet then check out the official Movember Facebook pages for the UK, USA, Australia and Canada – each of which have attracted tens of thousands of fans. Distinguished gents Stephen Fry, Daniel Craig and Justin Bieber publicised their own facial delights on social media – unfortunately Bieber’s failed to impress – and the campaign has attracted global media awareness.

I wholeheartedly support Movember, despite the preponderance of moustaches it generates on otherwise extremely-attractive men, but would also like to draw attention to the comparatively media-neglected phenomenon that is Muffember – and its rival/companion, as Puce recently alerted me to – Fanuary.

Just as men grow and sculpt their facial hair during Movember, Muffember and Fanuary campaigners document the growth of their pubic body hair for a month, with one website even offering the tongue-in-cheek encouragement of shaping it as a moustache in pay-back! Like Movember, the Fanuary movement originated in Australia; hence why it takes place during the month of January in order to target bikini-lines in the prime beach season; whilst Muffember is designed to run parallel with Movember. Both aim to raise awareness of the gynaecological cancers: cervical cancer is a prime target, but ovarian cancer as well as cancer of the fallopian tubes, vulva, vagina and uterus, all treatable if detected early, are in need of similar awareness campaigns.

The problem with Muffember and Fanuary is that, generally speaking, the public audience of a woman’s “lady garden” at any one time is likely to be countable on one hand, despite the recent trend for showing-off “vajazzles.”  Whilst some participators, for example the extremely brave Sarah Berry [warning: you will see pubic hair if you click this link], choose to visually document their progress online, it’s a controversial choice and one that even cancer charities have denounced as “pornographic” and distasteful – this news clip from 2007 charts a rare [that I could find] media recognition of Fanuary, where they highlight the official charity’s distancing from such efforts, even threatening legal action if their name is used in affiliation.  Fanuary is now supported by the charitable trust Women for Women, whilst Sarah Berry’s Just Giving fundraising page asks for donations in support of Ovarian Cancer Action.

In researching the two campaigns for this blog I was struck by the difference in media reaction – whilst Movember is globally recognised and has a fancy official website, the nature of the female campaign is much more underground – or rather, underclothes. Berry’s blog charting her progress was featured in a short piece on Diva Mag Online, and the campaign was also mentioned on the website Family Affairs, to give one example. However a brief search of Wikipedia will reveal that neither Fanuary nor Muffember are listed [unlike a well-documented page for Movember], and only Fanuary has made it into the Urban Dictionary.

It’s hard to say which campaign has gathered more online momentum, however the difference in Facebook pages, for me, spells it all out [I’m sure Twitter would provide interesting figures too, but I don’t know how to use that] – Fanuary has attracted nearly 8,000 likes, with the following passage as the sole information provided:

“Fanuary is the girls version of Movember… we grow our fanny hairs in January! Movember is disgusting and ridiculous… so now i am introducing another disgusting and ridiculous month…. FANUARY!! gilrs HATE facial hair… boys HATE fanny hair!!”

This is followed by the tagline “its a battle of the hairy sexes!! ;)” Personally I’m quite astonished that such an idiotic statement has been allowed to be affiliated with the campaign name, which not only degrades female body hair as unfeminine or sexually unattractive to the male gaze, but also labels the Movember campaign as “disgusting and ridiculous” for no apparent reason other than that “gilrs HATE facial hair” – nevermind the fact I’d hate any of my male friends or family to suffer testicular cancer just a little bit more than a few extra bristles on their faces. I hope that those who have liked the page have done so out of a serious desire to break down the taboos about gynaecological cancers, and not simply a desire to affiliate with the vaguely “feminist” pretensions of the page.

In contrast, the Facebook page for Muffember has attracted a mere 85 likes, but provides links and information to those serious about participating.

I found it interesting that whilst these campaigns both claim affiliation or juxtaposition with Movember through their name, the Independent article released today cited the “pink ribbon campaign” for breast cancer awareness as the female equivalent to Movember. Hugely successful in the media, breast cancer seems to be much less of a societal taboo than gynaecological counterparts, and the campaign to raise awareness of testicular cancer much more socially acceptable than female equivalents. For example, to the best of my knowledge no-one has complained about Cosmo’s “naked centrefolds” that feature celebrity men posing naked to raise awareness of testicular cancer – when women try to do the same thing, we are told it is “pornographic.” I acknowledge this is a tricky debate here about exploitation of the female body and sex appeal to sell – but if the product being sold is knowledge that might save a life, and the women doing the selling perfectly happy to raise awareness through their bodies as many men are, then why is it a problem?

I read an article on the Guardian today that assessed the “pornification” of women’s bodies in a culture of “hypersexualisation” that encourages women to have cosmetic labiaplasty in order to “perfect” their womanhood. The authors suggest that feminists are now “conservatives” in the public eye, seen as creating “moral panic” over sexualised images of women’s bodies that misses the actual problem: the images “perpetuate myths of women’s unconditional sexual availability and object status, and thus undermine women’s rights to sexual autonomy, physical safety and economic and social equality.” In my opinion the Muffember and Fanuary campaigns seem to be damsels in exactly this distress – women are being discouraged by “feminists” who fear sexual objectification from showing their bodies to support those bodies’ health and well-being, yet everyday consumer-culture proliferates images and messages of gender-sexualisation. It also denies the existence of a “positive” imaging of the vagina, as a subject viewed from female/feminist gaze, rather than sexualised masculine gaze – and you don’t have to be a radical feminist to dispel this myth, as even the “respectable” Guardian ran features over the summer on the imaging of the vagina by female artists [on my “future posts to write” list!].

By now my word count represents nearly a third of the essay on medieval marriage I am supposed to be writing, but I have two more small points to make: firstly, I started reading Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman last week in a fit of essay procrastination – I’m only a few chapters in, but if you want to read a very honest and modern take on pubic hair as well as other aspects of “femininity” than I absolutely cannot recommend anything better to read. And secondly, if you know a man a little down at the loss of his moustache this month, then I honestly think Not On the HighStreet’s Movember Collection could definitely cheer him up…

“You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere” – “Barbie Girl”, Aqua

15 Oct

I’m a blonde bimbo girl, in the fantasy world
Dress me up, make it tight, I’m your dolly
You’re my doll, rock’n’roll, feel the glamour in pink,
Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky…
You can touch, you can play, if you say: “I’m always yours”

In 2002 Mattel Inc sued MCA Records, the producers of Aqua’s song Barbie Girl, for their overtly sexualised portrayal of the children’s doll. The case was unsuccessful, with the judge ruling that the song was acceptable social commentary. Having dressed up as “Barbies” on Saturday night for my housemate Clev’s birthday, I at first decided it would be interesting to explore the decisions behind our own representations of the doll, but then turned to the preoccupation in the media with Barbie, sex, and female body image.

Barbie was launched in 1959 as a Westernised version of the German fashion doll Bild Lilli, produced between 1950 and 1964. Bild Lilli had started life as the cartoon creation of Reinhard Beuthien; a representation of the sexually liberated post-war woman, she was depicted with captions that emphasised her new place in the socio-sexual and political world. One image showing her with her boss [she worked as a secretary] quips “As you were angry when I was late this morning I will leave the office at five p.m sharp!” The first Lilli Dolls were marketed to an adult audience in bars and tobacco shops, and despite the disapproval of some parents she evolved into a children’s toy, with a range of fashion accessories, houses and furniture.

Barbie in 1959

So – this was Lilli, but who is Barbie? The story goes that Ruth Watson, an American mother, noticed her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls, sometimes giving them adult roles. Watson saw the German doll Lilli and modelled her own version for market in 1959, naming it after her daughter. The market for young girl’s dolls seems to offer two choices – the “infant” doll, to whom the child assumes a motherly role, and the “adult” doll, a role-model for the child’s emulation. Although dolls are primarily marketed and sold as female toys, Action Man and Ben10 offer “masculine” choices for young boys. There is a clear gender-role division whereby the infant dolls are marketed solely to young girls, shaping the stereotype that girls will grow-up to have children and be there sole care-providers. I may be wrong but I have never yet seen a “masculine” infant doll that asserts the right and ability of a boy to grow-up and be a stay-at-home Dad. In my eyes this is just as problematic as the perceived sexual element of a Barbie doll, which undoubtedly stems from the viewpoint of feminists like Ariel Levy, who in her work Female Chauvinist Pigs condemned Barbie as a “sex doll,” as well as her origin in the Bild Lilli. Certainly within the mainstream media it is not hard to find images of sexualised Barbie dolls, for example in More magazine’s latter pages, where they are used to demonstrate sexual positions to readers. Although marketed at an older audience than the dolls themselves, such magazines can easily fall into the hands of younger siblings, and in an age where Barbie is as prevalent online as she is in shops, finding sexualised images of her through Google is not at all challenging either.

The problem with this for me, is that Barbie dolls [both the female and male version], have no sexual organs. Sexualising a barbie doll is sexualising a eunuch, and perhaps a reason why Barbie, rather than Ken, attracts so much media attention – emasculated Ken has little authority in the development of a masculinity defined on male and female sexual difference. True, Barbie has breasts, long legs, a teeny-tiny waist and a  bottom, but I would argue that again, none of these bodily parts are sexual organs, they are parts of the female body that have been claimed by a male discourse that portrays them as desirable, and so sexual. Thus Barbie in herself is asexual – but through a male gaze [a gaze which inevitably penetrates the female, for aren’t we all concerned by how desirable we are to men?] her figure is sexualised. The problems do not end here, however – accepting that Barbie represents a product of masculine desire, the question arises: why do moralists assume that girls are more impressionable than boys? Whilst media attention is sporadically given to the damaging [or reinforcing] effects violent computer games have on masculinity, the issue of female sexuality and its susceptibility to external influence is so much taken for granted, and indeed ingrained within us, that it is hard to escape. This manifests itself in the much greater protection of ideals of femininity – for example the media outrage at beauty pageants conducted for young children or make-up ranges designed for the prepubescent – compared to a much more laissez-faire approach to young boys’ exposure to the sexual world, for example through porn [again, available readily on the internet for anyone to find]. Unfortunately the masculine sexual ideal is to be dominant and protective of the weaker, and more susceptible, feminine – therefore this is a cycle that is likely to be self-repeating until such sexual-stereotypes are broken down.

Barbie in the Nude, 2011

There is however, in my view, a positive interpretation to Barbie’s association with female sexuality. Having studied the dichotomy of sex vs intellect that moralists and masculinists imposed upon the “New Woman” who saught liberation from Victorian sexual ideals in the 1890s, the figure of Barbie becomes a cultural icon representing the victory of this struggle decades later, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and onwards. As women entered previously “masculine” workplaces they were caught between a desire to maintain their gender identities and reclaimed femininity, but also to achieve success in an environment defined and dominated by masculine parameters. Barbie, in her many career guises, asserts the idea that women can be both “career girls” [see the 1963 and 1999 editions], whilst retaining the right to be lovers and mothers. In other words, their sexuality was not in a dichotomy with intellect, whereby choosing one eroded the value of the other – they could choose both. Barbie furthermore posed in aspirational identities, such as the 1965 Astronaut Barbie, who was designed even before the first man had landed on the moon.

Barbie could choose her career, but she could also choose to have a family, and a boyfriend/husband in the form of Ken. Although the official line was that all the younger Stacey’s, Skipper’s and Shelley’s were Barbie’s sisters, as a child my dolls formed nuclear family units, usually with extra women in each household as friends and relations, as my gender ratio was extraordinarily overbalanced – I only had two Kens’s to service dozens of women. Interestingly these two Ken’s formed what I would now call “conservative husband Ken”, who had plastic moulded brown hair and wore sensible clothes, went to work, and whose head stuck out the sunroof of the pink BMW; and “surfer boyfriend Ken”, who had “real” blonde hair, a bead necklace and “beach” style clothing. But this is getting besides my final point in this already over-long consideration of Barbie. In an age where the media calls for greater Sex Education in schools and at younger ages, arguing that the current curriculum offers advice “too little, too late, [and] too biological,” the very sexual element of Barbie dolls must surely be of benefit to the exploration and development of young girls’ awareness of their own bodies; more helpful I would argue in an environment where sexuality is readily available than prolonging innocence, or ignorance. This is not only relevant to a consideration of issues like sexual health and STD’s, but also to shouting the message that female sexuality is not dangerous or weak, but that the right to sexual liberation, exploration and satisfaction belongs to women just as much as men – and we need only to open the pages of More magazine, with their Barbie dolls instructing and guiding, to tell us exactly this.

Barbie and her Dreamcar, 2011