Howard Jacobson: A misleading idea of beauty and desire


Regarding the iconography of the Page 3 girl, I am – just in case there was ever any doubt about it – entirely of the party of those who find such sexual objectification demeaning. And not only to women. It demeans men to suppose that's what they want to look at. And the truth is – no matter that this is to give away a closely guarded secret – they don't.

I have a theory about tabloid newspapers which, to my disappointment, the Leveson Inquiry has so far failed to invite me to expatiate upon. It is that no one really wants to read them and that even those who do – if they do – are motivated by nothing other than inferiority complex and faute de mieux desperation, by which I mean that they would as soon buy The Independent or The Guardian were it not for the fear of encountering expressions such as "expatiate upon" and "faute de mieux".

Only the certain knowledge that foreign expressions and words of more than one syllable won't turn up in The Sun can explain why anyone would shell out even his loosest change for it. By this reasoning, The Sun or Daily Star reader buys his papers in a terror-induced trance – much as Mrs Whitehouse must have chosen her magazines – not for what they contain but for what they don't.

Take the following old story from the Daily Star, which has resurfaced this week in the course of representations being made to Leveson in the matter of "the sexualisation of women's body parts", and tell me that you think anybody ever read, ever actually absorbed, a word of it. The story was headlined "She's a big girl now" and accompanied a photograph of Charlotte Church, then aged 15. "Child singing sensation," it ran, "showed just how quickly she's grown up after she turned up at a Hollywood bash looking chest swell."

Excluding paedophiles with a passion for "Pie Jesu", who could be interested in that? The rest of us know not to be ogling baby fat, and there can't be a person on the planet who thinks that "chest" is a good pun on "just". For my money, the woefulness of tabloid punning is as demeaning to our intelligence as the knowing lewdness is to women's bodies and men's appreciation of them.

But it isn't a competition: the entire package is an insult to us all, man, woman and child. And the only reason we don't say so is that we are afraid of being labelled killjoys, though if you can find a grain of joy in that, reader, you are perceptive beyond the common.

As with the puns, so with the sex. The offence is in the nullity. We talk of sexualised imagery but there was never yet a Page 3 girl who gave off anything remotely suggestive of sex. I've seen them all? I don't have to have seen them all. The convention is that they should look suggestively wholesome (which is an oxymoron), that they should be perky not sensual, that their facial expressions, in so far as they can muster them, should denote sportiness (which isn't, of course, erotic), and that their breasts should jut, scaffold-like, rather than oscillate with the self-willed luxuriance of living flesh.

How often the breasts in question are flesh at all, or simply toxic jelly, I have no way of knowing, but that their dead waxen look has convinced thousands of women to pay for something similar is a poisonous consequence for which the tabloids, never mind the surgeons, should be made to foot the bill.

Whether it's their own aesthetic that persuades women to mutilate themselves in this fashion, or because they think men like them to look as though they're carrying their own corpses on their chests, there's no knowing, but if the latter they are deluded. As I began by confiding, men are not aroused by Page 3 girls. They might think they are, but they are not. They might pin them to the walls of the workshops, they might stick them to the inside of their lockers, if for whatever reason they possess a locker; they might even exchange a wet grin with one another over them in the bars that bankers or builders frequent, but they do these things only because they have been culturally blackmailed into believing they have to.

It doesn't excuse the coarse sexism of men, any more than it excuses the hapless gullibility of women, to say they are each victims of cynically misleading messages about beauty and desire. We don't demean women only by exploiting images of their body parts; we also demean them by emptying those bodies of loveliness, sensuality, and the heady dangers that loveliness and sensuality present. Page 3 girls are ugly and denatured. Women who try to look like Page 3 girls denature themselves. And men who say otherwise are lying.

This isn't primness, reader. It isn't the sexualisation of the body we are against, but the pretence that you can take sex out of it. Hardcore pornography presents its own problems now that it's there at the press of a button, but at least you know when you're looking at pornography that you're risking your eyesight, your relationship and your sanity. Yes, it demeans in other ways, but at least it doesn't demean by denial.

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