Monday, October 24, 2011

Real Women Week - Love, Hate and Labels

I have a love-hate relationship with the term 'real women.'

As I said in my post about panic disorder, I think being open and honest about what we're really like as humans is ultimately a good thing. Not that every individual needs to share deep and personal information, but in general I believe that a wee dollop of honesty helps everyone. So I am cool with the concept of 'real women' - of all women being able to talk openly about how they really are. Myths have damaged a lot of women.

But. I detest a lot of the ways in which I see the phrase 'real women' used.

I have found that the term 'real women' is very often a euphemism for 'women above a certain weight.' There are Facebook groups with names like 'Real Women Have Curves!' and 'Real Women Eat Cake!' and such. I have heard men declare their preference for 'real women' when what they mean to say is 'I prefer women of a particular size or shape. I am choosing to use an insanely prejudiced term to express a perfectly acceptable preference.'

We're all real, folks. If you don't like some of us, that's life. But don't say any woman isn't 'real' because her body doesn't conform to what you like.

Real women have curves. They have lumps and bumps. They also have slim waists, flat stomachs, toned butts and every damned thing in between. And it's all cool.

We live in a society that likes to tell us we need to be super-skinny. That's crap, and it's great that people are embracing the idea that this isn't necessary, and owning their curves.

But seriously, it's time to start thinking about the language we're using for this backlash. Can it maybe not be so freaking nasty and exclusive?

The oft-quoted statistic is that the average British woman is a size 14 to 16, depending who you ask (for US readers, think 12 to 14). Yet a size 14 to 16 is perceived as large. It's good that we're more aware that not every woman fits into the profile that the media tells us is attractive - in fact, very few do.

And yet, there's more to that statistic than meets the eye. By definition, if 14-16 is average, then a lot of women must be below that weight, and equally a lot of women must be above it. Let's take a look at one woman who is a size 8 and one who is a size 22.

She might be healthy. She might be unhealthy. She might be far from her ideal weight. She might have an eating disorder. She might be beautiful. She might be sexy. She might be married or single.

Every one of those statements could apply to either woman.

So why do some people say that the smaller woman isn't real?

Women claiming their own appearance and accepting themselves is a wonderful thing, and I hope it continues. The next step is to learn to make ourselves feel good without using language that dehumanises and defeminises any woman. Because if you can only feel good by putting someone else down, that's called bullying. And everyone agrees that that sucks.


  1. Hear hear, Ellen!

    I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that I've seen this attitude of "promoting the thing we want as being better than the other" somewhere else.

    Gender inequality.

    The opposite shift in gender issues, pushing the notion that women are superior to men, or should be allowed to get away with behaviour that men have been getting away with for years, is exactly the same attitude as "real women have curves." It's the push-back response to decades of prejudice.

    The quick, easy way to assert the rights of one group is to say that it has more rights than the group which once put it down. So, after decades of women being told that they have to be skinny, the backlash is to say that women have to be curvy, and only curvy. Those women who have a slighter frame or smaller bust are left to be categorised as "non-women" in a similar way that sexist women categorise men as "non-people."

    It's just another form of prejudice and you've hit it right on the head. So long as a woman is healthy and happy with how she looks, how dare anyone say she's "not a real woman?"

  2. I totally agree, you very often see that attitude and it really isn't helpful. I don't think turning your own feeling of empowerment into putting someone else down is ever a good thing - feeling strong and valued should be independent of others being messed around :)

    No way should, say, feminism, ever result in making another group go through what your own group went through. Surely if you've experienced prejudice, you shouldn't want to dish it out?? :)

  3. This is something I had never thought about before in relation to women and their sizes, but as Paul comments, this same kind of prejudice exists in all sorts of arenas. And it's all still just prejudice isn't it?

  4. Why does 'Animal Farm' come to mind when I read this? Excellent post Ellen.

  5. Great post, Ellen. And it's nice to "meet" you! ;)

  6. Very thought provoking Ellen. For every person out there, there is another person more than willing to put them down. People are just people, that's all. The concept of a "real" woman was invented by someone who needed to feel better about themself.

  7. Glad you guys enjoyed it!

    Nice to 'meet' you too, Chantele - and I love your name :)

    Pat, 'People are just people, that's all' should probably be enshrined in every national, state and city motto worldwide - wouldn't we all manage so much better if we could just remember that one thing?

  8. Bravo, Ellen!

    I sometimes wonder if terms like this tend to grate us because they've moved beyond the original idea into a catch phrase or a marketing ploy.


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