I’m confused. Is female nudity now demeaning or empowering?

It is odd to have such dual morality when it comes to self-exposure.

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The air is thick with stories of appalling male behaviour of the past, of terrible things done or said in a lift or the back of a taxi 35 years ago.

On one question, most people seem to agree. Life was very different back then from the way we are today.

There are moments, though, when even that is open to doubt. Now and then, we seem more confused than ever about sexuality and gender. This weekend, for example, that bastion of middle-class family values The Mail on Sunday had its own Page Three nudes. Bared bums, breasts and, in one case, a pregnant stomach were displayed in artistic poses, tastefully lit. In each of the photographs, the naked women held a beret, helmet or military cap, deployed strategically.

These are the Garrison Girls, young wives of soldiers, sailors and airmen who have stripped off for a calendar to be sold to raise money for charity. The calendar’s editor, Sarah Bennett Thurston, has been anxious to point up the worthiness of their cause. The nude shots were not about individual women getting their kit off, she said, but offered a chance for the wives to show their commitment to the Forces, to give something back.

The initiative was inspired by the Women’s Institute and its now-famous Calendar Girls. “I wanted to do something to empower the girls,” said Mrs Thurston.

Now I am confused. Much publicity has recently been given to Lucy-Anne Holmes’s No More Page 3 campaign, which very sensibly is trying to get The Sun to drop its daily topless feature on the grounds that it is demeaning to women and contributes unhelpfully to everyday sexism.

It seems that, in certain circumstances, other pin-ups of naked young women are at the opposite end of the moral scale. Not only are they harmless, but they are positive expressions of female empowerment. They represent such a noble enterprise that a newspaper which likes to pride itself on its old-fashioned respectability will cheerfully devote a full page to help launch it on to the market.

It cannot be the case that the military connections of the Garrison Girls made the difference – Tracy, 17, on Page 3 often has a message for “our boys” – and we are, presumably, grown-up enough not to think that the fact the women are married affects the way the pictures are viewed.

The impulse behind publishing a tabloid pin-up of a model in a newspaper and selling a sultry nude picture of a squaddy’s young wife to be hung on a wall is identical. They are both designed to be sexy and to arouse desire.

The double standard about nude shots is certainly not restricted to military wives. These days, the more attractive celebrities seem to like nothing better than to strip off and pose boastfully naked in the service of some worthy campaign. Photographs of Jerry Hall, Greta Scacchi, Lizzy Jagger and others are to be seen this week at a Rankin exhibition highlighting the problem of over-fishing the world’s oceans. Next week, there will be another excuse – sorry, charitable cause.

We are moving perilously close to a general unquestioned assumption that male desire is suspect until shown to be otherwise, while female self-exposure is, by its nature, a bold, life-affirming expression of empowerment.

Of course, Sun Stunnas and Starbirds are sleazy and ridiculous: indeed, the newspapers’ emphasis in the past on the age of their teenage models suggests that they were not that far from the perviness of the world of Jimmy Savile. All the same, it is odd to have such an obvious dual morality when it comes to nudity and erotic display.

If the Garrison Girls, and contributors to any other nude calendars, want to strip off and show their bodies for the gratification of others, that is entirely up to them. For our own sanity, though, we should resist the notion that their exhibitionism is an act of saintly feminist independence.

Shameful tale of our dying trees

Anyone looking for a case study which shows what is wrong in attitudes towards rural Britain could do worse than look at the debacle surrounding the fungal disease likely to destroy millions of one of Britain’s best-loved – and most useful – trees, the ash. In 2005, a large number of ash trees were found to be dying in Denmark. An import ban was not introduced until this week, after the infection was found in trees across East Anglia.

Then there is the idiocy of importing ash trees in the first place. There are few trees which propagate themselves more vigorously. It was utterly absurd that bio-security was risked so that garden centres could make themselves a few extra pennies by buying cheap abroad. Now, finally, there will be the tears – sorrowful documentaries, an orgy of emotion about our beloved dying trees. Inefficiency, greed and sentimentality: the story of the ash tree tells us rather too much about the way we treat the landscape.

The avoidable tragedy of our ash trees

If anyone is looking for a case-study which shows what is wrong in attitudes towards rural Britain, they could do worse than study the unfolding debacle surrounding the fungal disease which is likely to destroy millions of one of Britain’s best-loved – and most useful – trees, the ash. In 2005, a large number of ash trees were found to be dying in Denmark. An import ban was not introduced until this week, after the infection was found in trees across East Anglia.

Then there is the idiocy of importing ash trees in the first place. There are few trees which propagate themselves more vigorously. It was utterly absurd that bio-security was risked so that garden centres could make themselves a few extra pennies by buying cheap abroad. Now, finally, there will be the tears – sorrowful documentaries, an orgy of emotion about our beloved dying trees. Inefficiency, greed and sentimentality: the story of the ash tree tells us rather too much about the way we treat the landscape.

terblacker@aol.com

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