Mannequins are a reflection of the way we see our ideal selves. Photo: Getty
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Size 16 shop mannequins are bad for women’s health – but not in the way you think

The way we present the female form spreads the idea that physical pleasingness is the primary guarantee of a woman’s acceptability to society.

The day you chuck your thin wardrobe is the day that you’ve decided the weight you’ve put on isn’t coming off again. The old you, the ghost you who could slip into those trousers and shiver inside that dress – she has been eaten into submission; she isn’t coming back. And I suspect that when chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies criticises the introduction of size 16 mannequins in Debenhams, it’s because she thinks they represent that moment of surrender on a national scale. We could have a sugar tax and install a cycle network, but maybe this is who we are now: maybe we’ve simply come to an accommodation with our bigger selves. (Whether our livers or our cardiovascular systems can be as tolerant as our self-esteem is, of course, another matter.)

The comments about mannequins aren’t really the most important part of Davies’ report, but there’s substance to them. Selling clothes always means selling an idea about the kind of person your target consumer can be. As the exchange of cash for garb gets nearer, the ideal is shuffled delicately closer to the actual until it seems so close you believe you could just stretch out and pluck it from the rail. The wistful, remote, skinny beauty of the catwalk becomes the slightly less alienating thinness of the fashion magazine, then transmutes into the shop window figure that looks like it could almost be you on a good day, before passing through the most important conversion and leaving the store in carrier bag, swinging hopefully by your side. There is one last miracle, and that’s the one where you put on your new clothes and realise that, rather than changing you into the kind of person who wears this marvellous outfit, you’ve just turned this outfit into the kind of thing that a slightly disappointing person like you wears.

All is vanity, all is dust. And for the most part, fashion relies on it being that way. Your unhappiness is the engine that keeps commerce ticking. Every product is the answer to a problem, one way or another, and if the clothes-buying portion of the world woke up one day and decided they had no problems to which a side-buttoning denim skort was the answer, the British high street would be in a bad way. Maybe it’s a kindness to remove one portion of that perpetual misery by installing mannequins that are closer to the actual size of women. At any rate, if we have to have a model figure, surely better that it’s Debenhams reasonably sized woman rather than something like the Venezuelan “operated mannequins” with their hoisted tits and globular buttocks, designed to match that country’s surgically hewn ideal of beauty. At least you can see yourself fitting into the injection-moulded pattern of the UK’s new standard without having four bags of silicone slipped through four incisions in your body.

But a standard mannequin is still a beauty myth, even if that myth has got bigger. Accepting largeness as a form of loveliness is not the same as accepting every woman’s body on its own terms. A friend confided a while ago that she felt like a misfit on account of her size – not because she thought she was too big, but because she’d started to feel that her size 16 was insufficient to qualify her for the “fatshion” scene, where the attractive standard starts around size 20 and comes in a smartly maintained 50s pin-up package. In line with mainstream fashion imagery, that package is overwhelmingly white – which, given that Black African, Black Caribbean and Pakistani women are disproportionately likely to be obese (pdf), is a notable enforcement of the usual beauty standards in the middle of something that casts itself as an aesthetic rebellion. And it’s a rebellion that can act like a regiment: several fat accepters have found that the scene’s body positivity started to run out when, whether deliberately or through illness, they stopped having quite so much body to be positive about.

Obesity isn’t a uniquely female problem. But the self-torturing belief that our bodies are somehow an offence to decency by being the wrong sort is. Anorexia, plastic surgery, obsessive dieting and feeling like the wrong sort of fat – these are issues that, in the vast majority of cases, plague women and not men, because it’s women and not men who learn that their physical pleasingness is the primary guarantee of their acceptability to society. It’s women who learn that they exist to be looked at, and it’s women who are encouraged to make drastic alterations when they inevitably fail to match the shape they’re asked to be, whether that shape is a wispily unobtrusive size 0, an hourglassy 16, or a voluptuous 20 snapping hot selfies with a kebab in hand. The chief medical officer is right that mannequins are bad for our health. I’m just not sure she understands exactly how right she is.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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No, single men do not have a “right” to reproduce

The World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them – own their bodies.

Last year, Katha Pollitt wrote an article for The Nation in which she asked why the left was simultaneously making progress with equal marriage while falling behind on abortion rights. “The media ,” she wrote, “present marriage equality and reproductive rights as ‘culture war’ issues, as if they somehow went together. But perhaps they’re not as similar as we think.”

She highlighted the ways in which the right can afford to cede ground on marriage equality while continuing to deny females bodily autonomy. She is right to do so. While both reproductive choice and gay rights may be classed as gender issues, each has its own very specific relationship to patriarchy.

A woman’s desire to control her reproductive destiny will always be in direct opposition to patriarchy’s desire to exploit female bodies as a reproductive resource. The social institutions that develop to support the latter – such as marriage – may change, but the exploitation can remain in place.

This has, I think, caused great confusion for those of us who like to see ourselves as progressive. We know that the idealisation of the heterosexual nuclear family, coupled with the demonisation of all relationships seen as “other”, has caused harm to countless individuals. We refuse to define marriage as solely for the purpose of procreation, or to insist that a family unit includes one parent of each sex.

We know we are right in thinking that one cannot challenge patriarchy without fundamentally revising our understanding of family structures. Where we have gone wrong is in assuming that a revision of family structures will, in and of itself, challenge patriarchy. On the contrary, it can accommodate it.

This is why all feminists – and indeed anyone serious about tackling patriarchy at the root – should be deeply concerned about the World Health Organisation’s new definition of infertility. Whereas up until now infertility has been defined solely in medical terms (as the failure to achieve pregnancy after 12 months of unprotected sex), a revised definition will give each individual “a right to reproduce”.

According to Dr David Adamson, one of the authors of the new standards, this new definition “includes the rights of all individuals to have a family, and that includes single men, single women, gay men, gay women”:

“It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change.”

It sure is. From now on, even single men who want children – but cannot have them solely because they do not have a female partner to impregnate – will be classed as “infertile”. I hope I’m not the only person to see a problem with this.

I am all in favour of different family structures. I’m especially in favour of those that undermine an age-old institution set up to allow men to claim ownership of women’s reproductive labour and offspring.

I am less enthusiastic about preserving a man’s “right” to reproductive labour regardless of whether or not he has a female partner. The safeguarding of such a right marks not so much an end to patriarchy as the introduction of a new, improved, pick ‘n’ mix, no-strings-attached version.

There is nothing in Adamson’s words to suggest he sees a difference between the position of a reproductively healthy single woman and a reproductively healthy single man. Yet the difference seems obvious to me. A woman can impregnate herself using donor sperm; a man must impregnate another human being using his sperm.

In order to exercise his “right” to reproduce, a man requires the cooperation – or failing that, forced labour – of a female person for the duration of nine months. He requires her to take serious health risks, endure permanent physical side-effects and then to supress any bond she may have developed with the growing foetus. A woman requires none of these things from a sperm donor.

This new definition of infertility effectively enshrines a man’s right to do to women what patriarchy has always done to them: appropriate their labour, exploit their bodies and then claim ownership of any resultant human life.

Already it is being suggested that this new definition may lead to a change in UK surrogacy law. And while some may find it reassuring to see Josephine Quintavalle of the conservative pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics complaining about the sidelining of “the biological process and significance of natural intercourse between a man and a woman”, that really isn’t the problem here.

“How long,” asks Quintavalle, “before babies are created and grown on request completely in the lab?” The answer to this is “probably a very long time indeed”. After all, men are hardly on the verge of running out of poor and/or vulnerable women to exploit. As long as there are female people who feel their only remaining resource is a functioning womb, why bother developing complex technology to replace them?

Men do not have a fundamental right to use female bodies, neither for reproduction nor for sex. A man who wants children but has no available partner is no more “infertile” than a man who wants sex but has no available partner is “sexually deprived”.

The WHO’s new definition is symptomatic of men’s ongoing refusal to recognise female boundaries. Our bodies are our own, not a resource to be put at men’s disposal. Until all those who claim to be opposed to patriarchal exploitation recognise this, progress towards gender-based equality will be very one-sided indeed.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.