So! It’s been a while, but it’s time to begin the Hay Festival posts! What a cool weekend it was. Literally and figuratively – it tipped it down, which wasn’t ideal as it meant the grassy sunbathing spots were out of bounds, but the talks were as interesting as ever and I bought a hell of a lot of books. Despite this being a literary blog I’m going to write about some of the talks I went to which weren’t actually about books, but rather talking points or discussions with public figures. Apologies for deviating from the norm, here – but who doesn’t like to shake it up every now and then?
With this first post I grouped two talks together as the themes are fairly similar. The next talk I’ll write about also has quite an overlap but that was actually about a book, so I’m giving that one its own post. Without further ado, let’s begin.
Heather Widdows – Perfect Me!
Heather Widdows, a Professor of Global Ethics, kicked off my weekend with a talk about the modern concepts of beauty and perfection, and how these affect our lives. Widdows is writing a book about the moral and ethical ideal of beauty and how members of society (mainly women) feel they must conform to it – a topic that seems strangely absent from other ethical studies, in her opinion. As part of what’s being considered a new wave of feminism, this is aptly timed, and Widdows’ talk was packed out. She looked at beauty in a rather unique way in that she was very much looking at it as a concept, instead of applying any personal tie to it. Below I’ll (attempt to) sum up some of the ideas she discussed.
Widdows said that we (mainly women) look at beauty on three levels: as something we aspire to, as something we feel would make our lives better, and as a social obligation. As an aspiration, women tend to feel that whatever they have is not enough, and that body image is linked to self worth and happiness. Widdows brought up the rather sad point that often we feel our own personal beauty dictates how we can and should be loved – for example, if a woman is cheated on, she might feel she has brought it on herself by not being as beautiful as she could be, or comparing her own looks to whoever her partner was with. The age of social media increases the judgement and also the pressure that we heap on ourselves, as someone could see by counting the ‘likes’ on a selfie that they put online.
Certain opportunities are deprived to those who don’t conform to the beauty ideal, which is something we see in our daily lives but is particularly applicable to women in the public eye. Looking after your appearance in order to be presentable is important, but when the standards differ for men and women, it becomes a little more problematic. Widdows indicated that we are always looking at the end result, how our lives will have improved when we have reached that beauty ideal, how much happier or more successful we will be. Adverts and products that rely on beauty heavily endorse this – ‘the best version of you’ or thereabouts is a common advertising slogan for beauty products.
As a social obligation, it’s actually a little disturbing to think about. Widdows talked about something like hair removal, and how only a decade or so ago armpit hair was more of a fashion choice than something to be stripped off completely. Today, I can’t imagine seeing a woman wearing a short skirt who hasn’t shaved her legs, or a strappy top with unshaven armpits. The idea is strangely unthinkable, yet not long ago no one would have batted an eyelid either way. It’s unfortunate that as time passes, the beauty ideal seems to be becoming more and more damaging to ourselves (dangerous skin bleaching, harmful tanning, surgery, and so on) or at least more painful (waxing! Ouch!) – not to mention homogenised.
Overall, the talk was particularly interesting as I’d never thought about the beauty ideal in so much detail before, especially from a kind of outside perspective. Instead of looking at myself in relation to it and linking it to my own happiness, it was refreshing to look at it as a concept, nothing more. The ideas that Widdows drew on about beauty being a social obligation shocked me the most, particularly when she highlighted how much worse things have got in a very small number of years. What will the idea beauty standard be five or ten years from now?
Laura Bates – Everyday Sexism: The Project That Inspired a Worldwide Movement
The next day I went to a similar talk, seeing Laura Bates discuss her infamous Twitter feed @EverydaySexism. Everyday Sexism was born out of the fact Bates was having a bad week, sick of being cat-called and patronised because she was female, so she set up an account to see if other women felt similarly exasperated. She thought it would be small and not very popular, but it totally blew up – these days it’s hard to come across anyone who’s not familiar with the name at least (particularly if they’re on Twitter).
Women (and sometimes men) write in and share their experiences of sexism, whether it’s a wolf whistle, a condescending remark, an advert, a rude comment, or something much more sinister (like sexual harrassment). Bates wanted to highlight how common and, well, ‘everyday’ the problems are, and the input from women across the world certainly proved that. It’s easy to sympathise with as a young woman. I’ve faced a lot of cat-calls in my life, not many of them particularly pleasant, but never before have I thought of it as something to complain about. It’s just something that happens. Bates managed to make it into not only a problem, but as something that shouldn’t be tolerated, and it’s fascinating. It’s like Page Three – you plod along, knowing it exists but never really shining any light on to it, until someone else does and you have a moment of epiphany. Hang on! That’s not really OK, is it? Everyday Sexism has also brought these problems to light for men, most of whom are very lovely people and would never consider talking down to women. They have no idea any of this casual sexism is happening and affecting women on a daily basis.
Anita Anand (who was probably the only dampener on the entire talk, so strangely irritating is she) posed the question to Bates that perhaps publicising these campaigns and also indicating how much abuse people like Bates have faced since they started to speak out puts young girls off from making a stand. It wasn’t something Anand was implying as her opinion, but it was an interesting point, and Bates was quick to dismiss it. In her eyes, the young girls and women see the kind of abuse, misogyny and general maliciousness online anyway, but campaigns like this one are inspirational, reminding people that it’s OK to stand up against sexism and feel a sense of solidarity with other women.
Bates has gone to a lot of educational institutions as part of her ongoing battle against sexism and has seen a lot of things that have angered her, such as particular animosity towards women from university communities that promote a ‘lad’ culture (websites such as Uni Lad haven’t helped) or women being branded with nicknames or numbers instead of names. For the younger women and girls, things are arguably worse. Bates is meeting girls in schools who have seen so much porn, often shown to them by their male peers, that now what they presume to be ‘sex’ involves choking and violence, and is something they genuinely fear. With nothing else to go on they just assume that’s the norm, which is horrifying. Like much of the feminist movement these days, Bates argues how important it is for sex education in school to tackle issues such as porn and consent, in light of the changing times. Sex education is already lacking but now that it’s so easy to become ‘educated’ online, it’s even more important to address what’s real and what isn’t, particularly as porn these days is often violent and exploitative. I read that talking about porn to your kids is the new ‘birds and the bees’ talk, but it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re up against unless you yourself are immersed in that playground culture. When you’ve got young girls genuinely saying things like ‘I didn’t realise that sex had to make the woman hurt and cry’ (as Bates witnessed), something needs to be changed.
The Everyday Sexism Twitter feed proves that the stories that go to the site are generally the same, no matter what country, although there are obviously greater issues in countries that aren’t as developed as the UK. Still, it seems like no one is out of the woods yet. When Bates spoke at Hay she had just got back from doing a talk for the UN in Washington DC, so it seems that the world’s higher powers are starting to listen to and address the issues, which is good news. Bates indicated that we need to stand up for each other when we witness these kind of events (safety allowing) and slowly we’ll create a backlash. She got a standing ovation at the end of her talk, and overall it’s pretty remarkable what one small project can lead to, particularly with the powers of social media.
So! Some food for thought, and not strictly related to literature (although both presenters had written books about their respective topics), but it sets up nicely for the next book I’ll be discussing: the first non-fiction book I’ve reviewed. Was it any good? Watch this space.