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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear