Book Review: Nanny Knows Best over at FWSA



Anything for a free book! I’ve written a review of Katherine Holden’s Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny for the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK and Ireland) blog, which you can find here

Considering how childcare has changed over the twentieth century, Nanny Knows Best is surprisingly topical and interesting – even for someone who has never watched Mary Poppins, let alone encountered a real nanny.

Shout out for the FWSA too: their website is always great and it’s well worth being on their mailing list for events and opportunities.

21st-Century Venus

Photoshop seems to be indispensable nowadays, not only to the production of beauty but also to the discussion of it. And here it is again: Anna Utopia Giordano’s Venus project photoshops classic nudes such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino below, into contemporary standards of naked beauty.

But what I can’t help wondering, with all sincerity, is why?


Some of the altered paintings look (to me) more attractive, some look weird. Yes, our standards of beauty have become more exacting and less realistic, but we know this already. Glancing through the comments on the page, this seems to be the general reaction.

After all, the reworking of a traditional image is hardly new: Titian’s painting has already been reimagined in a variety of ways, Manet’s Olympia and Gauguin’s Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife) being only two examples.


Edouard Manet, Olympia, the Venus of Paris, 1863 (


Paul Gauguin, Te Arii Vahine (The King’s Wife), 1896 (

Manet’s Venus, with her defiant gaze at the audience and the boldly outlined, textured rendering of her body, force us to question the nature of the sexuality being represented. Gauguin’s placing of a black nude in the traditional attitude of Venus offers a reminder that we still need, of the Western presumption that beauty is a white privilege – not to mention the fallen paradise references, with the serpent coiled round the tree.

Art has been questioning beauty for centuries, and sadly I think that Giordano’s contribution simply doesn’t stand up to the richness and provocation of its predecessors. But her Photoshopped Venuses do show us something important about 21st-century beauty. Giordano’s skinny, implausibly busty nudes have lost the dynamic relationship between flesh and fantasy that characterises the originals. The Renaissance paintings show a sublimation of honest, physical bodies into a realm of dreamlike beauty; because the Photoshopped bodies are already in the dimension of fantasy, the spark of reification is lost. The picture falls flat, having no connection to the flesh we are wrapped in, but floating free in the impossible. And that’s where the project falls flat too, as Giordano leaves it there without bringing it back to earth with some seriously critical questioning.

A Lesson in Fat-Shaming from The Guardian. Thanks Guys.

‘Big Ballet’? Yep, had to be a Channel 4 reality show. Feature in The Guardian? Had hoped for a thoughtful and sensitive critique but…

Big Ballet C4 Hannah Baines and dancers


As Helen Pidd in The Guardian points out today, a backlash is inevitable for a TV programme that gives larger women (what, no men? Sigh) the chance to dance: at least one person in the comments section dismissed it as a freak show, and more will follow. But I agree with Hannah Baines, one of the dancers (pictured front) who simply says, “I can dance. … Everyone who’s laughed at me, they’re going to watch and see what I can do.”

I suspect they will. Because, NEWS FLASH, people who wear a size larger than 10 are actual people who can do things like dancing. I know. Astonishing.

So I’m looking forward to watching this, for two simple reasons: I like watching dance, and I’m pleased that we get to see a wider range of people dancing. If only that was all that mattered!

Unfortunately, The Guardian has trouble with this larger-people-dancing-is-no-big-deal thing. They can get behind the larger-people-as-normal thing, but only in that really derogatory way when larger women are praised for being normal rather than, you know, spectacular or cool or anything else which is only possible at a size 8.

I have made a list of things in Helen Pidd’s article that I find Questionable:

  • “Baines is a size 18 and weighs 14 stone despite being just 5ft 3in tall.” Despite being just..? Oh right, being that weight at that tiny height is actually unacceptable. Disguised fat-shaming #1.
  • “Would viewers tune in to laugh and point at someone playing a role usually danced by a woman half her size?” That’s right half her size! She’s huge, right! And we’re really concerned that people will bully her for being so huge. Disguised fat-shaming #2. (I know this point has some value but I feel it could have been better made.)
  • Show choreographer Wayne Sleep “gave an interview declaring them “quite frankly fat. They’re too big to be dancers and they don’t mind me saying it.” Some of the women begged to differ”. I’m sure they did: even their choreographer thinks they’re “too big to be dancers”, not perhaps that the dance industry has very narrow standards that this programme is supposed to challenge. Disguised fat-shaming #3. They just couldn’t help quoting Sleep there.
  • There follows a section insisting (quoting Sleep and others) that the show is not intended either as a freak show or a diet show. This is good. But then: “Loughman is far more worried about the dancers’ fitness than how they look. “We’ve been plagued by injury. One girl tore a ligament in the very first rehearsal,” she says.” I.e. ‘we’re doing our best but they’re just too fat to move’. Disguised fat-shaming #4.
  • Dancer being fitted for her costume: “Her cheeks redden as a camerawoman pans up her size 20-body”. Ya think? The cameras just can’t help emphasising how fat these women are, and The Guardian just can’t help mentioning it. Again. Disguised fat-shaming #5.
  • “Early on, Sleep and Loughman decided to spare the women the indignity of wearing tutus”. Excuse me? Oh of course, they’re too fat for tutus. Disguised fat-shaming #6.
  • “The contrast between the dancers and the willowy [professional dancer] Loughman could hardly be greater”. Totally needed reminding of that. Disguised fat-shaming #7.
  • “Loughman says she and Sleep choreographed a 30-minute version of Swan Lake to “enhance the beauty of these everyday women”. Because ‘everyday’ is the best they can ever hope for. It’s a compliment, honestly! Disguised fat-shaming #8.

I’d like to emphasise that there was plenty of good stuff in Pidd’s article, and I’m glad this show is getting attention, but when reading it I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that between the lines it read FAT! FAT! FAT!

Am I overreacting? I’m willing to reconsider in light of other opinions, but I’ll stand by my list: this is a far too common way of talking about weight, and it is not OK.

Playlist of Positivity: songs that make you feel good in your own skin

Inspired by Louis Prima’s ‘The Bigger the Figure’, I would like to present the Playlist of Positivity: too many songs are about being hot and sexy, being madly in love and having sex, and I suspect that (along with their music videos) many of these songs make us feel just a teeny bit inadequate.


So I have put together a playlist of songs that make you feel great about whoever you happen to be – as comedian and writer Amy Lamé says (I paraphrase), she loved the Smiths because their music was about being a loser, and made her feel that being a loser was OK. I’ve just realised that Lamé without the accent is of course Lame, so she obviously is OK with that!

Naturally I had to include the Smiths in the Playlist of Positivity. Here it is: enjoy!

Standing in the Way of Control – Gossip

I Like Big Butts – Sir Mix-a-Lot (the video is a bit questionable but played for laughs)

Ask – The Smiths

Born This Way – Lady Gaga (with long crazy intro)

Whole Lotta Rosie – AC/DC (gone for a live version complete with inflatable Rosie. This might be questionable too…)

Imperfection – The Tears

The Bigger the Figure – Louis Prima & his Orchestra with Keeley Smith

Beautiful – Christina Aguilera

Sweet Transvestite – Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (BEST THING EVER)

Once and Never Again – The Long Blondes

Kiss – Prince

Beauty – Tim Minchin

Independent Women – Destiny’s Child

Heroes – David Bowie

I’d love your help in expanding the list: which song would you add?

It’s all about the money in Glamour: A History by Stephen Gundle

I’m not sure what I expected when I checked Glamour: A History by Stephen Gundle (Oxford University Press, 2008) out of the library. Hollywood, the magazine and beauty industries, fashion history – yes, but money? Well, yes. We know nothing sells like glamour. But I didn’t expect money to be the driving force throughout glamour’s whole history.



Because that’s exactly it: nothing sells like glamour. And this is the key to the argument Gundle develops throughout the book, in which he traces the glamour of the Napoleonic courtesans through to the Hollywood stars and all the way to Paris Hilton (I’m sure he was disappointed to end with her too).

I guess it’s not that surprising, since women (who are most often associated with glamour) have been bought and sold in one way or another for centuries, as the examples above make clear. However, glamour itself – which is not quite beauty, not exactly sex, and not really status either – doesn’t appear to be directly linked to money.

And that’s because it isn’t – at least, it doesn’t have to be, but that’s what happens to glamour in a capitalist society. As Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at The Beheld wrote of Virginia Postrel’s book on glamour, “Something glamorous must give form to an otherwise formless longing or desire”. And what happens when formless desires are shaped into glamorous images in a capitalist society? Yeah. We buy stuff.

So eventually glamour becomes pretty much synonymous with advertising, as we see all around us now. But how did this happen? Professor Gundle will explain.


Caroline Otero, one of the most famous courtesans of late 19th-century Paris (

After the American Revolution (1765-1783) and the French Revolution (1789), the structure of society changed in Europe and the US. The aristocracy declined, the middle classes emerged and grew richer, and industrialization gave birth to commodity culture. More people had more money (though still unequally) and there was more stuff for them to buy. Selling became an art form.

And that’s where glamour came in. Sounds obvious when put like that, doesn’t it? But when it comes to courtesans like La Belle Otero, for example, it was not as simple as using glamour to sell sex. Gundle explains that what made the top courtesans so desirable was not the promise of sex, but something broader: they were a lifestyle brand (that’s your heritage, Gwyneth) and association with them gave the customer an image of reckless wealth, style and luxury. That sounds familiar… Oh, hi Lindsay Lohan and Closer magazine.

This formula, product + glamour + aspiration = $$$ was used and intensified throughout the 20th century, selling everything from Hollywood films to vacuum cleaners – not to mention clothes and magazines. Gundle spends a lot of time analysing the history of these two, charting the rise of the fashion designer (as I discussed recently) from being purely a clothes-maker to the rich elite to, erm, a clothes-maker to the rich elite who also sells ready-to-wear clothes and perfume to those who can’t really afford it but wish they could. The magazines, of course, feed off this in celebrating the glamorous designer (Gundle picks Gianni Versace as the best example) and their celebrity friends, all of whom conveniently sponsor said magazines.

Nowadays, glamour is most often embodied in lifestyle aspiration which, Gundle says, is at the heart of celebrity culture. As role models in the shallowest sense, our desire to live like the celebrities shifts product like nothing else. In the Hollywood star system a young actor would be contracted to one studio for a set fee and number of films, and then moulded ruthlessly into the image selected for them. This image was then sold as an aspiration, which helped sell all manner of products designed to help the public achieve their dreams.

Greta Garbo "Torrent" 1925

Young Greta Garbo (


And after the studio got hold of her (

Gundle writes that when Greta Garbo – then Greta Gustaffson – arrived in Hollywood in 1925, she “looked like what she was, an unsophisticated girl from the backwaters of Sweden. Her front teeth were crooked, her hair was frizzy, and there was a hint of a double chin” (p. 173). Initially she didn’t photograph well, but then MGM cinematographer Henrik Sartov put her face in a particular pool of light, and the magic of Garbo was revealed. Of course, this magic then had to be plucked, preened and painted, but there it was. The studio built an image for Garbo of the mysterious, erotic European, and the building part is key: glamour is so enticing because it is something constructed, and therefore easier to achieve than beauty.

One is made, not born, glamorous. The constructed nature of glamour is clear in the word itself, which comes from an old Scots word meaning something close to trickery, and was introduced into modern English by novelist Walter Scott in 1805: it meant, to quote Gundle, “a magical power capable of making ordinary people, dwellings, and places seem like magnificent versions of themselves” (p. 7).

Which, to come back to the present, is precisely what Glamour magazine sells us. I’m not sure I needed more cynicism regarding popular culture and all its glamorous images, but that’s what Gundle’s book has given me – albeit a much better informed and impressive cynicism. It is a shame though, that glamour is all about the money, because it is also about aspiration – someone ordinary becoming a “magnificent version of themselves”, and this could be put to much better uses. If we glamorised something other than wealth and buying stuff we could really improve things, although I think it will take more than TV doctors in lipstick to get there.

The Bigger the Figure!

Today’s post was supposed to be about Stephen Gundle’s book Glamour: A History, but I managed to leave the book in a different location to myself. So that should appear on Friday.

In the meantime, you should hear this song by Louis Prima and his Orchestra with Keely Smith, called ‘The Bigger the Figure’. Credit to Elli again for bringing it to my attention!


You’ll be singing it all day. Guaranteed 🙂

Fatten Me Up, PhotoShop

What with the ‘fitspiration’ trend last year, there has been even more discussion around healthiness and its relationship to weight and beauty recently. But it turns out there’s more: as my excellent friend Elli Harris pointed out to me, PhotoShop has been playing its part – for decades – in creating a myth of healthy thinness.


It was this image of Karlie Kloss in the Huffington Post’s recent article that really caught my eye: Kloss is one of the most successful models around at the moment, and although we might in our knowing cynicism presume that her photos are retouched, I for one didn’t expect them to use PhotoShop to make her fatter.

I mean, we all know models nowadays are ‘too thin’, and they are constantly criticised for promoting an unhealthy level of skinniness. But it seems we haven’t been seeing the full truth of this, since the magazines and advertisers have been quietly erasing protruding ribcages, sunken cheeks and atrophied thigh muscle. This reveleation comes from former Cosmopolitan editor Leah Hardy, who wrote in The Daily Mail (of all places) that this has been happening for years.

As she explains, the industry is trapped in a cycle where designers send ever-smaller sample sizes to photoshoots, so the model agencies have to send ever-smaller models. Having booked exotic locations, top photographers, stylists and designer clothes at vast expense, you can’t really send home a model who turns up looking anorexic and ill, with acne, visible bones and dark circles under her eyes. You can, however, retouch her.

As the pieces in the Huffington Post and the Mail point out, this may have been done with good intentions – not wanting to promote an unhealthy ideal – but the result is that we don’t see just how unhealthy the ideal is. After all, Karlie Kloss still looks very thin in the retouched image above.


I think that the current obsession with health – often billed as a corrective to thinness – is in a dangerous position when this is how health is pictured: as the before and after image of Cameron Diaz above shows, artificial health is superimposed onto a slimness which physically cannot be that healthy. It’s the very definition of an impossible ideal. And if that’s what we think health looks like, then our self-esteem won’t be any better than when weight-loss was the goal.

Irony of the day: our Cameron has a new book out on how to be healthy. How much retouching, I wonder?

Post your questions for makeup artist Freya Wenonah…



I reckon that few people know more about beauty, illusion and the transformation of faces than a makeup artist. I will be interviewing one such individual, the fabulous Freya Wenonah, for her perspective on the power and perils of makeup, and its influence on how we see ourselves and others.

I would love to hear from you with your own questions for Freya, whether you want to know what she thinks about current fashions, feminism, self-image, psychology of makeup or just tips and tricks, so please post them in the comments. Thanks!

New Year, New Blah

I know. It’s the 4th of January and you’ve already read hundreds of features called ‘New Year, New You’. We’re told to ask ourselves all kinds of big questions: is my life going in the right direction? Am I the best person I can be? Can I lose 20 pounds? What isn’t questioned is the assumption that we all need to improve ourselves.

Whatever, Gisele (

And that’s fair enough. After all, it’s nice to be motivated to improve ourselves and our lives. But I suspect it is no coincidence that so many of the self-improvements suggested to us involve buying things. A gym membership. A self-help book for the career/relationship/diet/self-confidence. A new wardrobe. A new lipstick. A new hairstyle.

Well, hang on now, this looks familiar. Why, it’s all about being hot and sexy! Of course, if I can just transmogrify myself into Gisele Bündchen by following Cosmo’s 10 easy steps, then everything in my life will be wildly successful and fabulous.

So by buying things to make me hot and sexy, I will become an amazing gorgeous person living in bliss. Strangely, this sounds like a recipe for success not for me, but for the lady magazines, the lady products and the corporations that sell them all. When did that happen?

I’m going to say the 1950s. At least, I have learned from Stephen Gundle’s excellent book, Glamour: A History (2008) that the 50s was when mass production brought luxury to the middle and working classes. Suddenly cars, jewellery, cosmetics and the clothes worn by models could actually be bought by the woman in the street. For the first time, everyone could genuinely aspire to be like the models and celebrities in the magazines, could wear the same lipstick as a film star.

The aspirational Rita Hayworth (

It seems odd now to think of such availability as a novelty, but it was. For instance, fashion designers originally dealt only in couture, making bespoke clothes for the few who could afford them. Sometimes they would sell the rights to their patterns, so that other companies could make cheap quick versions, but this was not the same as the new breed of designers who emerged in the 1960s – Calvin Klein is probably the most famous – who pioneered the market in designer ready-to-wear. This market, in which original designer dresses, shirts and underwear were on sale to the masses at almost accessible prices, was brand new.

And since these desirable, aspirational products were now readily available, they needed publicity. And we know how that ended up – fashion and lifestyle magazines who have become so dependent on advertising income that all their content raves about the products advertised in their pages with little room for anything else. And the aspirations that we absorb from the magazines are all about what you look like and what you own.

So of course ‘New Year, New You’ comes to be less about being kinder to people and saving more money over the coming year, but rather to identify new (or perennial) problems with our appearances and purchase lots of stuff to fix them.

Need I ask about the success rate of such resolutions, or how they make us all feel?

How’s about a nice, obvious New Year’s resolution, in which we attempt to Not Buy Stuff and Do Important Things Instead. Pour moi? My resolution is to (not buy stuff) and blog more regularly. You see? Selfless.

Women as Wives and Workers: Marking Fifty Years of The Feminine Mystique


feminine mystique


There are some books which make their mark even on people who have never read them, and Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist work, The Feminine Mystique, is definitely one of them. On Saturday 30th November I went to a great conference at Royal Holloway University of London, marking fifty years of Friedan’s influence and questioning the place of her most famous book today.

And if I’m honest, I actually couldn’t remember if I’d read The Feminine Mystique. I knew what the ‘feminine mystique’ was, and had read masses of feminist work talking about Friedan’s book or drawing from it, but wasn’t sure if I had ever read the original. I didn’t admit this at the conference (imagine!), but it was a running joke that many people have ideas about the book without having read it. Its influence has spread far, but has often been distorted along the way, predictably placing Friedan in the Angry Feminist camp (you know, the one that doesn’t really exist).

So if you aren’t quite sure whether you’ve read it either, the feminine mystique is Friedan’s identification of ‘the problem that has no name’: the frustration and dissatisfaction of the 1950s housewife, trapped in the domestic with her identity disappearing into that of her husband and family, and unable to speak out because the role of wife and mother has been so idolised and mystified that it is the only acceptable role for a woman to play. 1950s adverts for household products provide the best illustration of this, painting a picture of the beautiful, demure and capable housewife finding the deepest satisfaction in a new vacuum cleaner.



I won’t attempt a full review of the Royal Holloway conference because I couldn’t do justice to all the insightful papers and discussions, so instead I’ll talk a bit about the reception of The Feminine Mystique, and beauty, since that’s my particular hobby horse.

For decades now, Friedan’s book has been criticised for failing to address anyone but the American middle classes – after all, working class women tend not to have the luxury of getting bored at home. Alice Lilly’s conference paper highlighted how working-class US mothers in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Programme have been forced, throughout the 20th century, from a financially unfeasible housewife role to an equally impossible working mother role, their income dependent on changing ideals and political machinations. From a different perspective, Caitríona Beaumont fleshed out the 1950s housewife image by detailing the range of community and political work done by women in organisations like the Women’s Institute. Gwen Jordan discussed how even Friedan’s friends and contemporaries in the upper-class neighbourhoods of her hometown Peoria didn’t identify with the housewife Friedan described – an image that Friedan herself didn’t fit either, active as she was in all kinds of work beyond the home.

I think it’s generally accepted that Friedan’s concept of the feminine mystique was important in articulating gender issues that simply didn’t get airtime, and that it would have been difficult to include the huge range of women’s experiences under one banner. What The Feminine Mystique did make clear was that women needed to be able to work, for the sake of themselves and their families, and that the traditional structure of paid work just didn’t accommodate people who might take time off to have children and then have to look after them. We still have that problem.

Another problem we still have is the mystification of certain ideals of womanhood. Household products are still advertised to women, and the perfect wife and mother who can raise kids, keep her home exquisite, please her husband and now have a career too, is still an ideal whose pressure is felt everywhere. And that perfect woman is very much expected to be slim, sexy and fully made-up even after all the kids and the work. Naomi Wolf’s 1991 book The Beauty Myth made an instant impact with its updated understanding of feminine ideals, and the way that women can be kept under control and fleeced of their cash by the pressure to be beautiful, and I won’t be surprised if there is a conference marking the 50th anniversary of that book. I suspect it will remain as controversial and influential, even among those who haven’t read it, as The Feminine Mystique.

beauty myth


What these two books have in common is the idea of mystification, and how one of the main pressures on women is the fact that they are supposed to live up to an ideal at all. The presence of any ideal is a problem when it becomes a requirement rather than an aspiration. Beauty is central to the feminine ideal we have, similar to the way in which strength is central to ideals of masculinity, but men are not nailed to the cross of their ideal image in quite the same way as women. I don’t think ‘the masculine mystique’ would strike such a chord. Or would it?

The feminine mystique has a slightly different face in 2013 – though not as different as many of us would like – and it is now a problem with many names and few solutions. Discussion at the conference shot out in all kinds of directions, taking in generational conflict in feminism, pink toys, husbands’ surnames and gender segregation in religion. And that is precisely the value of The Feminine Mystique: for all the things it doesn’t address, it still opens up discussion of many problems that need to be named and challenged.

With thanks to the conference organisers, speakers and fellow feminists.