In many respects, now is the best time to be a woman: we’ve got the vote, we’ve got marriage rights and we got rid of Page 3. Although don’t say that to the Sun, or they’ll bring it back again. It was an editorial decision.
So how are we using our freedom and opportunity and money? Well, we are hoping to cater to everyone’s tastes by slicing ourselves up like a Solihull Toby Carvery on pension day. We stick things on and tuck other bits in; get hair extensions and have other hair removed. We lie under lamps to be darker, and bleach ourselves to be lighter. We enhance our breasts, then reduce them again because they give us backache.
We freeze our foreheads and fill our lips. Once, we removed our ribs, then put them back in again because fashions changed. We broke and bound our feet and painted our faces with mercury. Now we vajazzle our montes pubis and, if we work in musical theatre and have hairy hands, we hajazzle our hands too. And we can’t stop. We’ll carry on until we become the human equivalent of a Fuzzy-Felt board. And until all that remains of our true selves is our low self-esteem.
Surveys and polls consistently prove that women would rather lose weight than achieve any other goal in life. Forty thousand women had cosmetic surgery in 2011. This figure does not include “lunchtime” procedures, such as Botox. Women had 90% of cosmetic procedures in 2011. The most popular are breast augmentation, eyelids and face/neck lifts. A third of women would have surgery to change their body shape. Half of women aged 16 to 21 would consider cosmetic surgery.
Demand for cosmetic vaginal surgery has increased fivefold in the past 10 years; almost all women referred for this have genitalia that fit within a normal/expected range of size.
I’m not judging those women. It is their vagina and they can do whatever they like with it, but I’m just going to offer up my alternative to surgery. I organised a naming ceremony for it. No one came. I burned some geranium oil and we shared a ham and tomato sandwich. I’ve felt much better about Brian ever since, and every man I’ve shown Brian to since that naming ceremony (mainly comedy critics and awards panel judges and bookers and promoters and comedy photographers and agents and TV commissioners who work in comedy) has felt better about it too.
Labial surgery is like pollarding a tree. All the birds’ nests have gone, and the plastic carrier bags, and the wood pigeons. They go from being the trees of life to barren sticks. Leave them alone.
Thirty per cent of female students aged 18 to 65 would be prepared to die younger for a “perfect” body; 10% were willing to trade between two and five years of life. And 1.6 million people in the UK are estimated to currently suffer from some form of eating disorder; 89% of these are female.
Now those are the facts. But look. I’ve got two webbed toes on my right foot. Not fully webbed, just half webbed. It’s a family thing. I’m from a family of ducks. And we’re all very proud of our webbed feet. And yet, with these feet, I have managed to live a full and varied life. I even managed to have two children. Well, ducklings. I call them children. In many ways, not just psychologically, I’m damaged goods. And yet here I am, writing this (not with my toes, though. I am using my unwebbed fingers).
The only thing I’ve had done is gum surgery. But that was because I was mugged and got my teeth knocked out (by a man! So we can add teeth-smashing to the list as well), so they needed a bit of straightening out. It wasn’t because I’d succumbed to the relentless bombardment of unrealistic images of women’s gums in the media.
And I’m a mum now. My body doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to work. As long as I can pick up my children, throw them into a bin and run away really quickly, that’s all that matters. And I can’t do that with enormous mattress-filled breasts, bound feet or convalescing labia.
If we don’t start valuing ourselves as more than just a commodity, and stop basing all our happiness and success on how we look, all the progress we’ve made will be a complete waste of time. What’s the point in holding up a mirror to female oppression if we can’t even look in it ourselves?
• Extracted from A Book For Her by Bridget Christie (Century, £14.99, out on 2 July). To order a copy for £11.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99. Copyright © Bridget Christie 2015.