Miley Cyrus performs during the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
I have a photo of myself that I really love. I’m in a purple short sleeved dress, one arm flung around my friend and the other dramatically pointing skyward, a giant open-mouthed grin on my face. If I was prone to flowery language like “her visage was suffused with elation” this would be an instance where I’d be breaking out the ten-dollar words. Instead I’ll just say that I look genuinely happy in that picture. And I was.
A male friend of mine saw that beautiful shot of me and said with a jerk smirk, “Ha! I can see a five o’clock shadow under your arms”. I believe I shot him a withering look and said, “Women do grow hair there, you know.” I’m glad I let him know that I was pissed off by his remark, but I don’t think he knew quite how irritated I truly was. Now when I see that picture I’m reminded that he tried to make me feel bad about my body and used it as the butt of his unfunny joke. How joyously free I remember feeling when the photo was taken is instead overlaid with that newer unpleasant memory. (Don’t feel that sorry for me, overall I still think I’m pretty awesome.)
I’m recalling this incident of late because of some of the current meme shaming being directed towards Miley Cyrus after her rather attention grabbing MTV VMAs performance. It’s a grim reminder that women’s appearances are always, always, always up for discussion and criticism. If you didn’t see it, the overblown drama is that Cyrus wore a flesh coloured latex bikini while twerking on stage with a giant foam finger.
Beyonce performs at the Superbowl earlier this year.
Regardless of how you feel about Cyrus’s I’m-all-grown-up antics, some of the comments flung at her, particularly regarding her freeze-framed derriere, were simply gross. Twitter hashtag #mileyasssmallerthan sprung up (spoiler alert: it’s smaller than all the things) and a photo gallery of memes were created about items that her bottom looked like. Hmm, if only there were a word to describing the comparison of women’s bodies to objects and the dehumanising effects that can wreak – oh wait, there is... objectification!
No, her bottom doesn’t look like an uncooked chicken or an apple or Hank Hill’s middle-aged cartoon bottom. It just looks like a regular behind squeezed into some beige plastic knickers. No news here, folks, and certainly nothing befitting the viral mockery that has been spewed her way. Discuss her performance, discuss her styling choices, but please can we not sit around contrasting and comparing the butt of a 20-year-old? And if you’d argue that if she hadn’t wanted anyone to talk about her bottom she shouldn’t have worn that outfit, then where does that lead us? Is it okay to discuss a woman’s body on the beach if she’s wearing a bikini? In the bedroom when she’s in lingerie? It seems better to just agree that perhaps we should lay off the body judgement altogether.
Fame in the age of freeze frames is indeed a cruel mistress, a fact Beyoncé also learnt at this year’s Super Bowl. She put on a particularly energetic performance and as a result there were some images going around that her publicist tried to get pulled down from Buzzfeed for being ‘unflattering’ (Buzzfeed much more positively described them as ‘fierce’). Press photographers were then banned from her current world tour, with some saying it was an effort to control the photos released of the singer. There are already incredible demands on women as to how they are expected to look – now it seems the bar has been raised that any female star should look like a perfectly posed mannequin for every single one of the 24 frames in a filmed second.
Now some might say that a bunch of celebrities who are handsomely rewarded for their efforts to entertain us probably shouldn’t be getting our sympathy for a few jokes about their behind or grimacing. But it seems to me that this is an instance writ large of something many of us have experienced – the unflattering Facebook tag or Instagram snap we’d prefer hadn’t been posted. We live in an age where we are visually documented at an unprecedented level and that can put a lot of pressure on how we are expected to look. So we can either go the Beyoncé route and try to curate how we are presented (a task that’s only going to get harder as social media flourishes), or we can stand up and say please cut it out with the body snarking.
If Miley’s butt is mocked for looking like a piece of bread, or Beyoncé’s grimace is fair game when she’s being energetic, and we condone that as a society, of course some dude is going to think it’s okay to try to embarrass me about having underarm stubble. Bodies don’t have to look perfect at all, let alone every single second of the day. The whole thing is extra revolting as I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s when these women were being energetic and active that the mockery or fear of being ridiculed came. It’s as if women are expected to be still and silent and pretty, and never step over that line into being rambunctious or loud or potentially ugly. And frankly over that line is where a lot of the fun of life is to be had.
So every time we speak up to say it’s not acceptable to judge women’s bodies like that it makes things a little easier for us all. If you’re with me, raise your hand (and I promise to duel anyone who dares to make a single comment about the state of your perfectly lovely underarms...)