Be prepared to compromise or ‘feminism’ will be a dirty word once again

By Natasha Devon

I remember in vivid detail the first time I heard the parent of one of my self-esteem class students use the ‘F’ word. It was summer 2011. It was hot. I was wearing a backless cotton Aztec print dress and cork sandals. We were in a school gymnasium masquerading as a lecture theatre. The double-door was wedged open and the smell of freshly-mown football-pitch wafted on the breeze. The ‘F’ word rolled so easily off the tongue of the fifty-something father who spoke it. He didn’t even flinch. I thought: “We’ve done it! Feminism is officially part of accepted vernacular! Hurrah!”

Yes, for one brief, shining cultural pause, everyone finally seemed to grasp what feminism was and why it continues to be relevant. We were all on board the Feminism Bus, willing to navigate our way to Equality. Women everywhere rejoiced, recognising that this represented an opportunity for a truly open debate, unencumbered by the myth that feminism is synonymous with man-hating and/or the needing of a “good shag”. And then… we fucked it up for ourselves.

The first thing that we did was fail to come up with a cohesive agenda we could all agree on. Hence the weighty issue of domestic violence somehow ranking lower in the public sphere than whether or not a woman chooses to wax her pubic hair as a valid feminist debate. This inevitably led to feminist sub-factions, with each group competing to see who could be the “best feminist”, sneering snarkily on social media at any being or organisation who didn’t match their high standards of feminist-kick-assery.

As well as being criticised for writing for ‘non-feminist’ publications, in the same week I was told I’m both too fat and too thin to be a body image campaigner. I’ve been accused of being “too good looking” to truly understand the cause I’m fighting. I’ve been criticised for my tattoos, which are apparently a sign of conformity. I was even told off for not being a lesbian once. Every week I receive tweets making comment on my hair and makeup, suggesting they aren’t in line with ‘proper feminism’.

Every now and then I get abuse from men but it’s incredibly rare by comparison. Somehow, being told by a male social media user that they wouldn’t fuck me because I’m too fat hurts far less than the mindless barrage of bitchiness I receive from supposedly intelligent women. Luckily, for every one of those I get twenty saying “thank goodness! AT LAST a feminist we can relate to!”

All the hard graft undertaken by high profile women to present feminism in an easily digestible form slowly unravelled. The word ‘misogyny’ was being chucked about like it was going out of fashion – on Twitter, in boardrooms, down the pub. Feminist campaigners began metaphorically stamping their feet, huffily insisting they wanted anything that they considered demeaning to womankind BANNED with immediate effect. They would brook no argument. They would listen to no counter-stance. All reasoned debate had ended, with immediate effect.

In 2014, ‘feminism’ has become a dirty word once more. Men have once again begun pontificating about the non-armpit-shaving stereotype, who bellows at them for opening a door. The majority of teenage boys are completely bemused, as their female counterparts stomp around demanding to be treated with R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but unable when questioned to articulate what form this respect should take. Significant swathes of the female populous are clasping to a vague notion that feminism is about women being assertive, but lack the genuine self-esteem to ask anyone why.

For those unwilling or unable to compromise, we have reached an impasse. For the rest of us, furthering female empowerment will involve compromise.

In the digital era, where everyone MUST have an opinion and MUST be able to express it succinctly in 140 characters or less, any kind of compromise is often mistaken for hypocrisy. Yet, behind every powerful institution is a workforce comprised of human beings. That fact in itself offers an opportunity for negotiation and sometimes progress happens in pigeon steps.

Never is this more true than within my field of body image. Let’s be clear, I’m not talking female genital mutilation here. (In that particular instance, compromise is both impossible and dangerous). But when discussing bodies, health, beauty, fashion and their portrayal in the media, there’s a no man’s land between camps, chock-full of wiggle-room.

In the world of body image, no one is impartial. I’m acutely aware that every word I say or write will be swamped in layers of the reader/listener’s own issues, experiences and prejudices. What one woman sees as objectification, another woman sees as empowering. What one woman sees as the showcasing of a healthier body ideal, another will see as the promotion of obesity. It is a constant battle to be as inclusive and understanding as possible. And, since everyone has a body, everyone should have a voice in the collective body dialogue.

As a campaigner, I have always seen more value in collecting views than presenting them. I think it’s better to make a small change to something visible than push blindly for a huge change that is very unlikely to happen and thus remain invisible. I would rather ask the followers of my campaign, Body Gossip, what they thought on a contentious body image issue than tell them what I think. I would rather encourage the students I work with to reward the retailers and advertisers taking positive steps to promote wellbeing and diversity than unwittingly promote those who aren’t by adopting an “oh look, isn’t this terrible?” approach. I understand, for example, that in a capitalist society, where “all publicity is good publicity”, a surge in profits for Debenhams (who actively promote body diversity) is worth more than 100 protesters outside Abercrombie and Fitch (who don’t).

I would rather encourage Page 3 to use a wider range of shapes, sizes and races than bark more and more outlandish, misanthropic reasoning for its banning in the direction of an institution that, for its own reasons, loves it and is adamant it should remain. I would rather slightly dumb-down my opinion on a body image matter to bring it to the four-million strong audience of This Morning than write it in a broadsheet like The Guardian, whose readership are the choir to my proverbial preacher… It doesn’t offer the same sort of instant popularity but it does offer the opportunity to change minds by presenting what might have been alien ideas in a relatable form.

Sometimes our propensity for being offended has to be put aside for the greater good. I view the raising of £8 million for breast cancer research through the taking of make-up-less selfies, for example, as positive, because whilst insensitive to some it will indisputably save lives.

There is a middle ground to be explored, so long as one has the humility to rethink principles which might have seemed concrete when one’s world view was more black-and-white. As a socialist, I never thought I’d write for right-wing tabloid The Sun, until I entered into a dialogue with the people who work at The Sun Woman’s desk and found them just as passionately enthusiastic about bringing a healthy, diverse message on the subject of female beauty as I am. Now I have the opportunity to work with them to bring that message to their 6 million readers. For that I have received threats, accusations and endless social media trolling delivered under a ‘feminist’ banner.

I worry that a movement chock-full of women who genuinely want to see change and are ready to negotiate to get it is being eclipsed by a militant minority who care not a jot about the day-to-day life of the average woman in the UK and simply want to sound-off. It’s harming our cause and the perception of the feminist movement and actively encouraging a reticence towards change in some sectors.

We can start by trusting each other. Deriding cultures we don’t understand by claiming that their women have “no idea they’re being oppressed” (and we therefore know better) only serves to raise tension and broaden division. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, the products of our environment. We therefore need to work together to make that environment more conducive to allowing genuine freedom of choice. I believe women who say they genuinely want to pole dance for a living. I believe women who say they choose to wear a niqab. I believe that those two types of women can co-exist peacefully in an equal society.

Please believe me (and Mary Poppins) when I say that a spoonful of sugar is sometimes the best way to make the medicine go down.

Natasha Devon is Director of the Education Program at Body Gossip. She is Cosmopolitan Magazine Ultimate Woman of the Year, 2012, in Ernst & Young’s Top 50 Social Entrepreneurs 2013, Mental Health Association ‘Business Hero’ Award Winner 2012 and Shortlisted for UK Parliament First Annual Body Confidence Awards. Follow her at @NatashaDevonBG

Photo: UTV.com

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14 thoughts on “Be prepared to compromise or ‘feminism’ will be a dirty word once again

  1. Roy

    As an Armpit Shaving non gendered person. I became non gendered as I gave up on trying to figure out my gender identity and then came under attack from those who at the same time wish to remove gender and also trying to get people (often Trans Women) to conform to the gender binary.

    I after finding I was working with people attacking me for the gender they assigned also realised these people are sufficiently entrenched in all organisations to think they are the main part of it. Some they are the main part. Others they are one person, who may then use the parts of the Social media they control to block etc, without the others knowing. If they dont go to the face to face meetings its even more infuriating.

    I then changed. dropped the word Feminism. So became an anti Sexual abuse campaigner, continued campaigning against FGM, ironically going head to head with them when one of the people they support for their positive projects for Domestic Violence also is not doing enough for FGM (and its in their area of control IE Police). Then attacked by the same group not for challenging a politician who represents me but for challenging a Woman.

    I continue the campaign for gender equality (which is the meaning of Feminism: but have been removing the word feminism from the lexicon, not as I disagree with it but as its used against me as a campaigner.

    The campaign for victims to be supported and trying to bring groups to talk to venues sometimes meets one of these groups or you find they have influence in then. So suddenly things can go from booking a speaker to be accused of only trying to book a speaker to harass them.. As a rape and sexual abuse victim I find this hurtful.

    It does however seem like the author of the article that some people are letting personal opinions of a person effect if they will work for a common cause. I find this sad as I for example will willingly work with people who I dislike, or who even hate me, or have even been abusive to me. Like those women that the writer talks about has met abusive women who have been abusive to her. The issues should be bigger than the people involved and trying to not control protests and discourse, just facilitate and take part.

    I still hold the hand of friendship to them as fighting just hurts the cause and hurts the people fighting the cause.

  2. princessjack

    This. There are too many I-have-just-decided-I-am-feminist-because-I-read-Ariel-Levy pushing their veiws down the rest of our throats. I have been an out and proud feminist since aged 14. I have also worked as a lap-dancer. Get over it mini rad fems. There are far too many ‘feminists’ telling other women what to do/wear/think and belittling them. It is turning women away from identifying as feminist.

  3. Victoria

    It would have been great to see some actual examples of the shouty, Millie Tant caricatures evoked in this piece. It’s also very unclear why the choice feminism espoused here should be more inclusive than a feminism that demands political change – since choice, after all, is a function of privilege. This piece by Michaele L Ferguson is very good on choice feminism and fear of politics:

    1. Angela

      Cerinthe, thanks for posting that link to Natasha’s speech. I’m not sure why you did so or what point you thought you would make but I really enjoyed it. Makes a change to hear a viewpoint that’s informed, witty and impassioned on a subject that confuses so many.

      1. Cerinthe

        My post was directed to Natasha, not you, but anyway.

        The No More Page 3 campaign has been one of the most successful public campaigns against media sexism we have seen recently. It has mobilised a huge number of women, many of whom probably had never considered feminism as something they’d want to take part in it. Instead of supporting it as a fellow feminist, Natasha undermines the campaign in this article whilst letting herself of the hook by naming no names. The Warwick debate shows more clearly where she’s coming from – defending Sun readers from those nasty bullying feminists who want to take their soft porn away.

        I guess if Natasha wants a job with the Sun, she probably is going to have to make a stand for Page 3. Similarly working for Cosmo she won’t be able to criticise misogynistic beauty standards or the beauty mandate for women. The problem then is if you can’t fight to end male harm to women what are you left with? Natasha makes a good stab at it with “compromise”, so instead of no more Page 3, we have diverse breasts, showing that every kind of woman can be objectified and ogled by men. Again with beauty standards – they aren’t to be criticised or objected to, rather we’re supposed to embrace them as offering us “choices’. The solution here is for each teenager to be taught to individually love her body (“rock your gorgeous”), whilst all the individuals publishing, working for, and advertising in Cosmo for example, who send out their poisonous messages to women every day can continue their activities unchallenged. The belief that it is every woman’s job to be attractive to men, or that beauty is our main value too remains completely unexamined.

        I’d love to know what the Feminist Times thought it was trying to achieve with this piece apart from causing controversy. Every feminist in the movement probably could write an article about how other feminists have upset her, and how they’re getting it all wrong and should be doing it differently. It’s the nature of politics. The problem is if the Feminist Times publishes all of them though it’s going to clog up their editorial space for the next few years. But as diversity is now what feminism is supposed to be about, I say go for it! We can address male harm to women and girls in another decade.

        1. Deborah Coughlin Post author

          Hi Cerinthe

          Thanks for your comment.

          Feminist Times has an incredibly diverse range of voices and subjects. There are 39 articles currently on our front page including pieces on Dworkin being right about porn, gender bias in Aspergers diagnosis, porn and future technologies, “chav” as a feminist issue, a psychoanalysis of why the police continue not to believe women and a scathing Obit of Nuts magazine.

          This is the only article out of that 39 that is a personal critique/analysis of the movement today and we believe it’s important to represent the views of women who are finding the movement a challenge in 2014 and to report those challenges. Feminism should not be above critisim and it would be very unbalanced to suppress these voices but it’s certainly not a main focus of Feminist Times.

          With this balance in mind it would be unfair to suggest Feminist Times focuses on criticising feminists if you read the vast array of feminist debate on this site. We want to represent as diverse a range of voices as possible which means readers will not agree with everything we publish (see our FAQ).


          1. Cerinthe

            Hi Deborah, thanks for your response. I didn’t suggest that the Feminist Times focuses on criticising feminists. I said that I didn’t understand why it published this particular feminist-bashing article, especially given that it purports to be complaining about bashing in feminism. Contradictory and not very useful, especially when real “balance” would mean you’d need to publish a whole lot of other articles by feminists who also feel unfairly treated by other feminists, and think they should be doing things differently. The series could run and run.

            It’s good you don’t want Natasha’s voice suppressed, although I think her platforms at the Independent, the Sun and Cosmopolitan (the latter two whose corporate interests she defends using feminism) mean that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

        2. Lil Z

          Agreed, Cerinthe. There are debates to be had within feminism, and then there is just straight-up anti-feminism. Feminist Times seems to have confused the latter for the former. I was excited when I heard about this website, and almost signed up as a member immediately, but then I figured I’d wait and see what sort of direction it took. Well, now we know.

          Apparently this publication was inspired by the example of Spare Rib – but just try to imagine them publishing a piece like this. The editors there had certain feminist principles that guided their editorial decisions, a vision of a world in which women as a class were truly liberated, and an understanding that people who opposed stringent critiques of patriarchy were already given plenty of space in the mainstream media.

          The editors of Feminist Times, in contrast, seem not to understand basic feminist principles, such as the importance of tackling male violence, and the need to fight against sexist stereotypes that dismiss outspoken women as hysterical. Why they think their readers are longing for articles that imply feminists are man-haters and hysterics who just need to calm down, when we are all assailed by such viewpoints every day in the MSM, is beyond me.

          What actually excites and inspires women who are disturbed by the persistence of sexism and male violence, and who want to be part of a political movement to challenge that, is strong, uncompromising feminist voices. Of course, many women will not agree with this and will urge them to back off and not give the rest of us a bad name. But – those women are not feminists. Feminism is not for the faint-hearted, or those who shudder at the thought of male disapproval or being called names. It is the most revolutionary political movement ever conceived, the struggle to end the oldest and most widespread form of oppression in the world. As Finn MacKay has said, we need to stop pretending feminism isn’t a threat.

          “Our movement is indeed a threat. It is indeed threatening. For what is the point of a social movement that doesn’t envision a different world, what is the point of a social movement that doesn’t try everything in its power to make that vision a reality?”

      2. Stephanie Davies-Arai

        Natasha Devon’s comments ‘informed’? Where do I start.
        The No More Page 3 campaign has never claimed that Page 3 models are ‘mistreated’.
        The current Page 3 models are not sizes 8 – 14, they are sizes 6 – 10, overwhelmingly with a DD – EE cup size. That body shape is a natural shape for 5% of the population, and unacheiveable for the rest without starving + implants.
        Where is the evidence that the Sun pays to retrain its models? I have never heard that ever before anywhere, and it is something that the Sun would obviously shout about if it were true.
        Page 3 models are ‘happier, healthier and less pouty’ than most other images of women. Have you looked recently? They pout, have parted moist lips, sometimes licking them, look smoulderingly out from under tossed hair with half-closed eyes, they sometimes wear stockings and suspenders, they are sometimes seductively and invitingly unzipping tiny shorts.
        Talking to UK teenagers – when 32 unis have voted to boycott the Sun, schools are signing up to the campaign, and thousands of teenage girls sign the petition, email, and give us their reasons, when UK Girlguiding and the Girls Brigade have voted unanimously to support the campaign because of the insecurity Page 3 makes them feel? It takes a safe space to admit to feeling insecure about Page 3 for fear of being accused of being a prude/over-sensitive/hung-up/jealous. Perhaps Natasha Devon doesn’t create that safe space.
        The campaign encompasses people from every class, it is not a ‘vocal minority of middle-class women bullying a working-class readership’, that is an offensive view of all classes.
        Her language is emotive: ‘tidal wave of hysteria’ ‘it’s about snobbery.’
        The most harmful claim, and irresponsible coming from a body-image campaigner – is that there is ‘no research to back up’ the claim that Page 3 has a negative impact on society and influences male violence towards women. http://www.nomorepage3.org/faqs contains two links to extensive research on the effects of public sexualised images on both men and women.
        Natasha Devon’s comments could have come direct from the mouth of David Dinsmore, editor of the Sun, the newspaper that pays her.

      3. Helen

        Angela, having just watched that clip I can tell you that it couldn’t be more misinformed if it tried. Here are the things she got wrong:

        ‘A tidal wave of hysteria’ – No, the campaign has never been hysterical, though that’s an interesting use of a traditionally misogynistic word.
        ‘Vocal minority of middle-class women’ – No, supporters are from all classes and backgrounds and include men.
        ‘Bullying a working-class readership’ – No, lots of working class people don’t like sexism either.
        ‘Lazy assumptions about the glamour industry’ – No, the campaign has done its research and includes supporters from the glamour modelling industry.
        ‘Says the models are mistreated’ – No, the campaign has never said this, and does not believe it to be true. They are not paid as well as some people believe but that’s as far as it goes.
        ‘The size of models is 8-14 and smaller ones have smaller breasts’ – No, the stats show a smaller range of sizes, and while the models frames are getting smaller their breasts are getting bigger.
        ‘The Sun pays for retraining’ – No, not as far as anyone has been able to find out. Would like to see the proof of this.
        ‘Burying our heads in the sand about the real issues’ – No, lots of NMP3 supporters are capable of multi-tasking, and are also involved in campaigns against FGM and DV and lots of other causes.
        ‘Snobbery’ – No, and this is insulting to the many people who have signed because of real-life trauma associated with Page 3 and have finally found a voice. This is a campaign for ordinary people.
        ‘No scientific evidence for the link between images and violence’ – Yes, there is. Go to the NMP3 website and look at the FAQs.
        ‘No negative impact’ – Yes, there is. Go and look at the FAQs, and at the website Page3 Stories.

        Apart from all those points, yes, an informed, witty viewpoint… How refreshing!

  4. Bernard

    Compromise – never. Write bullshit in return for a cheque from News Int’l – oh go on then. Egowank.

  5. princess jack

    Victoria, I don’t rate that piece at all. It is a perfect example of what this article talks about. It turns most women away from feminism. It makes them think it’s some scary controlling cult. I do not judge other women. At least I try not to. I don’t want to reproduce the patriarchy by regulating women’s dress/ behaviour/ lovers. It isn’t about women acting as a homogenous political group in order to be treated with respect or equality. We should not ‘earn’ respect, we should have it as our default setting.

    ‘Choice’ feminism is just a passive-aggressive way of mocking liberal feminism. I am with the author Natasha here. A woman can be a stay-at-home mum/ pole-dancer/ wear full religious covering/ be a CEO. If ‘choice’ feminism was no longer a choice, there’s no way I would have identified as a feminist for the last 16 years. Hearing your response made me want to reject the term feminist once more. I mean the article you recommended actually quoted Ariel Levy…… Go originality.

    I have no fear of politics. I just know we won’t get change through the many Christian-backed-glossy-anti-sex campaigns that are held up as ‘feminist’. So many of these campaigns are just replicating historical attacks on those women who chose to dissent from their prescribed gender roles.

    1. Derrington

      I don’t see how a woman working in an industry that refers to its female workforce in words of contempt such as slut and whore can truly be a feminist since those words are gendered hate speech. I understand that she may feel her decision is personally empowering for her, but feminism isn’t, if I understand it correctly, about the individual, but for women as a group. Joining in with an industry that sells sexism as sex is hardly a feminist position, more a personal or financial one. Not shaming here, just pointing out the inherent problems with the sex industry as a whole and the part it plays in oppression.


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