“Being a good girl, a perfect girl, can kill you fast or it can kill you slow, flattening everything precious inside you, the best dreams of your one life into drab homogeneity.” Laurie Penny UNSPEAKABLE THINGS 2014
ST URSULA WITH HER VIRGINS RijksMuseum, Amsterdam
I've been working lately on a new series of works: CAUTIONARY TALES, looking at some of the many perils of being female. In the process I have become more and more aware of the stories that we tell girls about girls and of current issues facing young women.
In many ways it's easy to assume that a girl growing up in the UK today is relatively free from the social constraints. Equal Rights are accepted (at least in theory). We are a liberal and increasingly secular society. Girls have unprecedented freedom to make their own sexual choices. Yet online bullying and judgement of women in the public eye consistently labels them as sluts, as 'unfuckable' and/or threatens them with sexual violence. It is extraordinary that in the 21st Century we are still discussing women in terms of how their bodies are used by others, but that old notion of the woman's body as object has not gone away. Objectification is a girl's adolescent rite of passage. Mine began in the 1970s. I was a 'slag', an 'ice queen', 'frigid' or 'gagging for it'. All labels assigned according to the judgement of others. I really did think it would be different for my daughter, but some things are slow to change.
Laurie Penny, who experienced acute anorexia as a teenager and survived to write brilliant, excoriating polemics, is my favourite new wave feminist. Penny highlights a prevailing experience of the body as split. Split between the unacceptable body that we have and the body that we ought to have and would have, if we weren't so shamefully ill-disciplined, such poor excuses for womankind. Goodness knows what percentage of national GDP is spent unquestioningly on products that promise without irony to perfect, to transform, to defy age. Each purchase, an investment in the story of our unacceptability while incidents of self harm, eating disorder and body-dismorphia are on the rise.
On a recent trip to Belgium and Holland I saw a lot of medieval virgins, effigies of women without sin. Mary, mother of Jesus and breastfeeding virgin was everywhere. We are centuries from mass cults of virginity but is this impossible-to-achieve notion of untouched womanhood, still lurking in the shadows? Is this the double-bind, that makes us so accepting of our unacceptability? Doubtless, it's more complicated than that, but I am trying to be aware of object-judgement, whether it's out in society or inside my head and to beware of splitting in two, of separating what we are from what should be. It's a political decision. It's not just little girls who need different stories.