There has never been a better time to be a woman, and yet in some ways, things seem to get worse all the time. Allow me to share some of the highs and lows of the past few days.
Last week, the most prestigious sporting site in London – a purpose-built arena between Horseguards Parade and The Mall – was given over to a women's sporting event. Excellent news. The sport in question, however, required its participants to wear briefs with a side width of no more than 7cm. And elasticated crop tops. Only the female participants, you understand – male players of beach volleyball wear beards, baggy shorts, vests and the like, and will not be invited onto Horseguards Parade until 2012. In the meantime, the skill-to-pants ratio seems a toxic deal for sportswomen.
Snakes follow every ladder in this volleyball lark. For example, a major left-leaning newspaper sent a reporter to cover the event. Then the reporter called the athletes "maidens". Similarly, on Googling "famous women athletes", you are automatically redirected to "hottest women athletes".
The standout stars of the volleyball tournament were British contestants, Zara Damphney and Shauna Mills. Because of their prowess at spiking, digging and blocking? Because of their amazing ability to look fierce while jumping? Because of their extraordinary levels of commitment, concentration and apparent immunity to wedgies? Well, undoubtedly, but also for another reason: they have agreed to allow a betting company to affix a black and white "quick response code" to the back of their bikini bottoms, thus inviting spectators to look once, look twice, and then snap a photo, which will lead spectators effortlessly to said company's betting website.
While a commercially astute move, no doubt, this innovation did nevertheless result in some rather demeaning quips that they had "sold their asses". It wouldn't have happened to the swimmer Esther Williams. Certainly, even athletes like Williams started their own consumer ranges; branding is a way of life for modern sport, and it's certainly better than relying on state hand-outs. But putting a barcode on your bottom is not very cool.
Olympic hopeful Claire Kelly, who wants to represent Australia at beach volleyball, recently announced she was offering sponsors a chance to choose her tattoos. She would have auctioned the right to tattoo a logo on her, had beach volleyball's ruling organisation not demurred.
She has a noble goal, but is this really the best way forward? Does it not give the unwise message that your skin, your very self, can be bought, traded, made disposable? Women are so much more imaginative than men when it comes to exploiting their bodies. A flash of bare flesh is like a whiff of gunpowder. It gets you noticed immediately. But there is a heavy price to pay. You risk becoming trivialised, sexualised, put outside fair and equal competition. Last week, France's finance minister Christine Lagarde was appointed Head of the IMF. Fox News said Forbes had rated her "one of the most powerful women" in the world. Well, gee, "one of the most powerful people" in the world would have done. At least they did not end up commenting on her shoes. Women in the public eye have to play a very clever game to make sure that the media never, ever comment on their shoes.
The first woman Beefeater made a mistake when she told reporters her uniform had good pockets for carrying lipgloss. Jokes like that do not work unless you are a very great woman. Usually they simply become sticks you are beaten with. In order to truly achieve, you need to rise above femininity. The happy appointment, last week, of our first female commander of a frigate, Lt Commander Sarah West, reminded me of a comment from below decks I once heard: "There are no men and women here, only sailors."