A “real woman” apparently isn’t a model. Photo: Getty
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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.

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. 

 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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