Something is rotten in the state of femaledom. The soaring popularity of cosmetic genital surgery (increasing 500 per cent in the last ten years); the normalcy of Brazilian waxes, even for girls as young as 12; and the literally paralysing fear of looking your age that has made botox utterly banal – all give off a very bad whiff indeed. It stinks that an increasing number of girls have eating disorders, that we have seen the rise of pole dancing as a “feminist” activity, but the stench is coming, not from male misogyny, or as some claim, ever-more extreme and violent pornography, but from our own pathological need to be considered sexy. In her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, Ariel Levy pinpoints “hotness” as the number one social currency for women – even above goodness and intelligence.
She’s bang on. A terrifying amount of self-worth is bound up in appearance for women. In my case, this is despite having a mother who never wore makeup and a father who didn’t seem to care; a family in which intelligence trumped skinniness in the value hierarchy. Even so, a comment implying someone thinks I look a bit plump can wreck my mood and my emotional self-control. A compliment on my looks from almost anyone hits me like a drug, while kind words relating to my work or achievements barely register.
Why? From the moment we’re in dresses, girls learn that looking pretty earns compliments and friends (the most popular girl at school, at almost any age, is usually the best-looking, and vice versa). As we get older, cultivating sex appeal through looks earns new and more potent forms of validation: male adoration and female envy. The problem with both is that they only arouse the ego – they can never satisfy it. It’s exactly as Naomi Wolf argued in her feminist manifesto, The Beauty Myth (1991): the values inherent in idealised images of female beauty can never be fulfilled in reality. That is: a woman can never be beautiful enough.
Crucially, the sense that we can never be beautiful or hot or sexy enough does not originate from some murky, singular devil known as “society”, nor with men (most men are more intrigued by independence and confidence than by a fat-free, super dolled-up product of surgery; and despite the rise of porn, many men claim that such images are separate from their interaction with real women). No: it comes from within women themselves, both individually and collectively.
A complex network of culturally encoded ideas (memes) have led us to this place, and the only way out of it is to recognise what we’re doing, and seize personal responsibility. Memes are strong, but individuals are stronger. As the grisly details behind the PIP scandal continue to emerge, and with them, disheartening statistics about female bodily discontent, we owe it to womankind to rethink a woman’s relationship to herself and her body. So here’s to a year spent trying to loosen – if not to break – that iron chain between self-worth and looking hot. Why? Because, in the words of L’Oreal, we’re worth it.
Zoe Strimpel is City A.M.’s lifestyle editor and author of the Man Diet (Avon), out now.