Month: March 2013

Body Projects Conference University of York (09/03/13)

Conference Summary

At the beginning of March 2013 I attended my second academic conference. It was a postgraduate conference entitled ‘Body Projects’ and when I first saw the Call for Papers I thought it seemed really interesting as some of the themes related to my own research interests.

The conIMG_0609[1]ference was at the University of York so I set off to get the train at about 6am. When I arrived the university staff and students were really welcoming and I spent some time looking through the conference program before the first session began.

During the morning sessions, there was a focus on female bodybuilding and how it can conflict with traditional notions of femininity and heteronormativity. Dr Gemma Commane gave a great talk based on Jodie Marsh and how Jodie’s status as a glamour model juxtaposes her choice to modify her body with tattoos and piercings and her choice to pursue a career in female bodybuilding. Really interesting!

A highlight of the day came from Tanita Maxwell and Sarah Peat, postgraduate students at the University of Aberdeen. Their paper looked at Suicidegirls.com which is an alt-porn website set up by women with the aim of challenging popular representations of beauty and sexuality. The Suicide Girls claim that they are not Baywatch girls and they are not Playboy girls, however, as Maxwell & Peat argue, the website does not really serve to challenge the existing order, in fact, over time the images of Suicide Girls have become increasingly ‘mainstream’ with the exception of tattoos and piercings. Maxwell & Peat also argue that a large majority of the images are of thin, white woman and when women are not white, for example, if they are Asian, they are often labelled ‘exotic’ by the site. Another interesting point about this talk is that it brought up issues surrounding the ownership of images on the website which I assume to be an important factor of agency for the girls involved.

IMG_0621[1]A separate point which came up during the day was the notion that conforming to popular forms of femininity can be interpreted as a kind of performative labour and entrepreneurship by women who will also often treat the body as a site of continual improvement. In keeping with this argument it was interesting to hear some of the speakers relate conformity to the experience of trans women whose attempts to fit in are often based on binary ideas and stereotypical representations of gender.

Perceptions of one’s own body was also a recurrent theme within the conference and a particularly interesting study by Dr Beth Bell of Northumbria University really inspired me. Beth’s presentation/paper was entitled “The Thin but not that thin Body Ideal: A Qualitative Glimpse into Adolescent Girls’ Personal Body and Beauty Ideals”. In the study participants were asked just one question- to describe what the perfect body is to them. It was really insightful to discover that the majority of girls had very specific ideas about what the perfect body looks like with “curvy but not fat” and “a small waist but not too thin” being the kind of answers that were given. Some of the girls rejected the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect body and others described a body drastically different to their own.

Other talks on the day included an insight into the Kickboxing culture of Dutch-Moroccan girls and how they avoid training hard, instead using kickboxing training as a symbol of status and a means of fitting in with their peers.

Overall the conference was exciting and very interesting! Hearing from the speakers about their wide range of research has definitely helped me to see where my own research ideas and aims fit within the existing literature, not just in relation to my own topic but the topics which surround it.

IMG_0634[1]When I got home I was really pleased with my daytrip and how well it went. I even managed to see some of the sites of York while I was there but it was rainy and miserable as you can see from my photo!

My next post will be a summary of a conference I attended this week at the University of Chester.

Young Sexualities Conference Cardiff University 25/01/13

Conference Summary

A few months ago I attended a conference in Cardiff (25/01/13) which focused on ‘Young Sexualities’. The conference title and programme attracted me and the scheduled talks on sexualisation, youth and sexuality, constructions of femininity and girls’ advertising experiences, all fell within my research interests.

After paying the conference attendance fee I booked my return train from Liverpool to Cardiff with the aim of making it a day trip. In the lead up to the conference it had been snowing a lot so I put my wellies on in preparation and upon arrival I found Cardiff to be as sludgy and cold as I had imagined it to be!

IMG_0376[1]I was all organised and knew where I was going. I had to get a train from Cardiff Central to Cathays, but while I was on this train I was told that it was running late and wouldn’t be stopping at any of the planned stations! So basically, I ended up in Ponty-somethingoranother at the end of the track which took about half an hour and then I had to wait another 20 minutes for a train back to Cathays!

After this detour of random Welsh towns I eventually arrived at the conference 45 minutes late. Luckily I hadn’t missed anything too exciting because the first talk I’d planned to attend had been cancelled and next up was the talk I was most looking forward to: ‘The Trouble with Sexualisation’ by PhD student Helen Williams.

Prior to the conference I had emailed Helen and we had a brief exchange about our research interests so I was really looking forward to hearing her speak.

In her presentation, Helen addressed the debate surrounding the term ‘sexualisation’ arguing that it is a troubling concept which problematises young female sexuality. Focusing on The Sexualisation of Young People Review by Linda Papadopolous (2009), Helen critiqued the policy approach to sexualisation by raising some very interesting points relating to moral panics, conservative values and the demonisation of young female sexuality. Helen argued that much of the discourse surrounding sexualisation tends to neglect female agency by adopting a protectionist approach through which young women are portrayed as the victims of a sexualised culture.

IMG_0374[1]Although heavily critical of ‘sexualisation’ as a concept, Helen also argued that there is a need to address the sexual images in society as well as a need for research into how young people themselves interpret sexual imagery. Helen suggests that addressing the sexual images in mass media should involve a more frank and open approach to sex education which includes the discussion of pornography and sex within relationships.

Overall, the presentation by Helen Williams prompted some helpful ideas for my own research. I was also introduced to a different point of view to my own as the points raised were something I had not previously considered in great detail. The talk made me reconsider how I had initially interpreted Papadopolous (2009) and having since re-read the review and having explored other critiques of sexualisation, I have now developed a more critical view of the framing and language used when focusing on issues surrounding sexism, sexual objectification and sexual imagery in general.

IMG_0363[1]The other speakers and posters displayed during the day added to my ideas about youth, sex and subjectivity. The whole event was really interesting and touched on issues surrounding female sexuality, agency and empowerment, which is what I had hoped for when I first read about the conference.

I was definitely pleased that I attended the conference, although, when it came down to the content of the presentations, there were only a few talks that I could draw inspiration from or apply to my own research. However, I don’t see this as a negative, I suppose that is what conferences are all about, you never know what research will be useful to your own until you hear or read about it.

During the day there were a few opportunities to network but as this was my first academic conference, I felt a little bit out of my depth and didn’t feel confident explaining my research to people. I kept myself to myself but hope to get more confidence over the coming months so that I can network successfully in the future as its a shame to waste such an opportunity!

Reflecting on the day, I feel that my trip to the ‘Young Sexualities’ conference in Cardiff was a very worthwhile experience. Having travelled there alone and attended talks which excited and inspired me, I was left with a great sense of achievement and independence.

My next post will feature a conference I attended at York University in March entitled ‘Body Projects’.

Book Summary: Walter, N. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism.

This book summary is part 3/3 and focuses on a contemporary feminist text written by Natasha Walter a British journalist, author and feminist.

Walter, N. (2010). Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. Virago Press, London.

Natasha_Walter_-_CR_Bohdan_CapNatasha Walter is a well known feminist and the author of The New Feminism (1998). In this text, Walter focused on what she believed to be the most worthy cause for contemporary feminism: economic and political equality. Walter (1998) claimed that women should not worry about objectification or sexism because these kinds of issues will fix themselves when women achieve equality in other areas. However, in Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism (2010), Walter admits to having a massive change of heart and executes a successful U-turn arguing that sexual objectification of women is something to worry about and that if anything, it is becoming more, not less of a problem.

6a00d83451bcff69e201310f267332970c-300wiWalter’s (2010) main stance throughout Living Dolls is that there is a hyper-sexualisation of mass culture occurring across Western society. Accompanied by the proliferation of sexually objectifying images found in mass media, women now face an added pressure in order to fit the mould of femininity which is offered. Not only is beauty and slimness a must but increasingly so, sexiness is falling into the definition of what it means to be a woman.

Walter (2010) claims that female sexuality is often celebrated throughout the media but it is narrowly defined and fails to represent reality. Adopting the ethos of the sex and glamour industries, sex is framed as something a woman should perform; therefore women should continuously strive to improve in terms of sexual allure and their ability to please.

“The image of female perfection to which women are encouraged to aspire, has become more and more defined by sexual allure” p3.

In the first few chapters of the book Walter (2010) addresses the gender stereotyping of products and toys marketed at young people discussing the usual in regards to pink for girls and blue for boys. Then Walter (2010) moves on to argue that women are encouraged to look like dolls. Referring to the Girls Aloud dolls, the author argues that they are eerily identical to the real thing; both are perfectly airbrushed with big hair, smooth skin and trim bodies. For Walter (2010), they are interchangeable consumer objects and act as models for the next generation.

girls-aloud-pic-pa-841252739The book moves on to glamour modelling and lads magazines with the author able to offer an insight into the working of the glamour industry. Walter’s (2010) recall of the ‘Babes on a Bed’ contest she attended (where the girls compete to win a Nuts photoshoot) and her interviews with glamour girls are what make this book interesting and different. Walter (2010) successfully combines her evaluation of the hyper-sexualised culture she sees around her with the insider knowledge and words of women who work within the sex and glamour industries. In a non-judgemental manner she gives them a voice in her book. However, a critique of Walter (2010) is that whilst she does not neglect the agency and autonomy of the girls, she does not draw too much attention to it either. Some of the girls are happy doing what they do and some of them are not which is probably a fair analysis, but I do feel that this approach leaves the question open as to whether or not their work is truly empowering for women and this is something I would like to have read more about within the text.

Nuts UK September 11In reference to the book’s subtitle ‘the Return of Sexism’ Walter (2010) argues that the current feminist discourse surrounding female sexuality is more damaging than it is liberating as it merely encourages women to accept a sexist and sexual cultural landscape which largely caters to the fulfilment of male fantasies, ignoring genuine expressions of female sexuality and pleasure. Almost hijacking the rhetoric of choice and freedom, third wave feminism has taken the original feminist message and distorted it so that it fits the mould offered to women by the patriarchal system we live in. For Walter (2010) it is problematic to the point where women are almost taking part in their continual subordination.

Walter (2010) believes that the feminist rhetoric of choice and empowerment is now so deeply submerged within our hyper-sexualised culture that it can no longer represent true choice or real sexual liberation. The representations of female sexuality which we see most often are too tightly confined within the limited model of femininity continuously thrust upon us.

Walter (2010) really reminds me of Ariel Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture, which is a good thing. In fact, I think it goes a step further than Levy (2005) as Walter’s interview data makes her observations stronger than Levy’s (2005) which lack any real, empirical evidence.

The main criticism I have of the book is that it fails to address aspects of race or class in any great detail. Walter (2010) does briefly touch on class in relation to the career aspirations of young women. Referencing an interview with Dave Read, the Director of Neon Management, she claims that middle class parents do not have the same concerns regarding their daughters and the possibility that they might want to work in the sex or glamour industry. This is an interesting topic in its own right and it would have been beneficial to Walter’s work if she had expanded on some of the points made.

Despite some criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed this text, from beginning to end. I felt like it said everything I want to include in my own work. Walter (2010) explores different aspects of society and focusing on how sexual images are becoming increasingly dominant in mass culture, argues that sexism still exists and calls for feminists to recognise the new ways in which it works. This book builds on Levy’s (2005) Female Chauvinist Pigs: The Rise of Raunch Culture and adds to the current debate surrounding sexualisation and women.

IMG_0268If you are interested in reading more of my book summaries please visit my previous posts in which I have written about feminist texts by Betty Friedan (1963) and Ariel Levy (2005).