Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter of the Vagenda Magazine

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It's time to ban the phrase “real women” for good

It’s restrictive, it’s insulting and it’s downright weird.

A Burberry show at London Fashion Week in 2013. Photo: Getty
A “real woman” apparently isn’t a model. Photo: Getty

Have you ever wondered whether you’re a real woman? Nope, us neither. It seemed pretty self-evident from a young age that we definitely, absolutely weren’t mannequins, or slightly perfumed puffs of air, or even intelligently designed futuristic WomanBots sent by MI5 to spy on our nearest and dearest. In fact, it’s always felt fairly intuitive to us that we are natural human beings, with organs and bodies and brains and feelings, rather than suspect fakes. So how is it that we have found ourselves suddenly and disturbingly thrust into an age where the label “real woman” is up for grabs – and apparently, not every woman can have it?

Admittedly, the last month has seen a couple of instances of human women deliberately blurring the boundaries with Barbie dolls, which could have caused some confusion in the matter of what’s real and what isn’t. First came 38-year-old Blondie Bennett, from California, who famously stated that she “[wants] people to treat [her] like a plastic sex doll” and claimed that she was undergoing hypnotherapy make her more confused, ditzy and vacant. Then came the Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, who models herself on Barbie’s proportions and has decided to become a “breatharian” in order to maintain them. In case you’re wondering, a breatharian is somebody who believes in living off light and air rather than, y’know, the totally conservative route involving food and water. And she’s the one who hasn’t even been hypnotised yet.

Despite these high profile cases – and the slew of copycat wannabe Barbies who will inevitably continue to dominate the news until the Daily Mail finds something else to loudly moralise about – it’s a rare woman who seriously identifies as a plastic plaything. Given that fact, it’s completely confusing that we’re faced with endless features discussing the placement of “real women” in various contexts. Whether it’s the anti-skinny war cry “real women have curves” (and its accompanying 2002 movie of the same name), the Dove campaign for “real beauty”, or a recent article on Jezebel proclaiming that “Rick Owens is the latest designer to replace models with real women”, it seems that there are conflicting media views on how real you are that have nothing to do with what you decided for yourself. Meanwhile, women’s magazines continue to run fashion features promising to “show what real women look like” to their female readership, as if there’s a realistic chance that they never caught a glimpse of one in the mirror. The way some of these pieces are touted, it’s as if the journalists are offering a rare glimpse of a ring-tailed lemur wobbling down the catwalk in a Chanel tulip dress, rather than a couple of women with wrinkles on their foreheads wearing expensive clothes.

It goes without saying that there is a massive problem with diversity in fashion. The standards of beauty in any given country are shifting and arbitrary, and at the moment in the UK they all too often exclude anyone who isn’t white, able-bodied and anything over a size six. This ideal, which so many designers continue to stubbornly persist with, is responsible for making many a teenage girl feel ugly for the first time as she flicks through the latest fashion mag. It’s not OK, and it needs to change. But we can’t change anything by telling the models who happen to fit into the ideal that they are less real for looking the way that they do. Equality doesn’t work that way.

Just like the gloriously radiant women cavorting with the joy of a basket of puppies in springtime on the Dove campaign adverts, the willowy women dressed in Dior with their blank expressions and their incredible legs are very real. They don’t come flat-packed out of the model factory, where classy gals with perfectly angular faces drawn into permanent bland little frowns drop off the production line and onto the catwalk, ad infinitum. They don’t even frown like that all the time, when they’re sitting at home eating mac and cheese (OK, steamed kale) or hanging out with their friends or telling a joke or tripping over an awkward step in a doorway. They don’t because they’re not mere stereotypes of drainpipe girls, tiptoeing around in floaty dresses in spots of moonlight whenever they’re not letting designer gear hang artfully off their slender frames. Unfortunately, they’re as real as the price tag on that Mulberry mac they’re showcasing that neither of you can probably afford.

Women are subject to stereotyping far more often than men, and the idea of the “real woman” just perpetuates this problem. A “real woman” apparently isn’t a model, and she doesn’t wear a 32A bra. Jezebel claims that when Rick Owens used “real women” for his catwalk show, they didn’t “glide around... with picturesque frowns on their faces - instead, they stomped and danced and mean-mugged”, because they’re part of a trend called “normalcore”. And yes, “normalcore” sounds about as fun a movement as when Special K tried to convince you that eating breakfast twice in one day was “a thing”, or Pret a Manger threw a packet of leaves at you and called it a “breadless sandwich”. But really, all it’s about is setting one group of self-consciously “real women” up against the other, in a back-handedly insulting way.

If there’s one wish we have for the next year, it’s to ban the phrase “real women” from advertising, editorial, media dialogue and general conversation forever. It’s restrictive, it’s insulting and it’s downright weird. So let’s leave redefining the boundaries of reality to Descartes and those really good acid trips. Because no woman, not even Blondie Bennett or Valeria Lukyanova, is a Barbie doll, and no woman should have to put up with having her very existence called into check just because she isn’t straining out of a lacy bustier.