Analysis: There's a damaging link between the pressure girls and women experience trying to live up to unattainable beauty standards and poor outcomes for mental health problems, eating disorders, and plastic surgery rates.

It is not easy being an Irish female politician at the best of times, but spare a moment for the poor women of the Oireachtas as they stand in front of their wardrobes each morning wondering if the dress they're contemplating will make them the target of mean-girl scorn.

They must surely be pondering Niamh Walsh’s recent Irish Mail on Sunday column (12/9/21) which criticised a number of Fianna Fáil politicians (mostly women) for their seeming lack of fashion sense.

The piece was a cruel and clumsy attempt to swing a left-hook at the embattled party - one for which the paper was forced to apologise after the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and public rightly objected.

But scrutiny over women’s clothing choices is so ubiquitous it is almost unremarkable. When in 2016 Theresa May took over as British Prime Minister, The Sun immediately put a close-up of her leopard-print shoes on the front page with the headline "Heel, Boys" in big, bold letters, evoking dominatrix imagery.

Even powerful German Chancellor Angela Merkel regularly took hits for being too frumpy in her signature block-coloured blazers, yet too provocative for displaying cleavage during a visit to the Oslo Opera House in 2008.

It is an easy target to attack female politicians for their failure to conform to fashion ideals but we know there is a damaging link between the pressure girls and women experience trying to live up to unattainable beauty standards and poor outcomes for mental health problems, eating disorders, and plastic surgery rates.

In many societies women’s clothing is closely policed as a way of controlling them. Iranian morality police chastise women on the streets of Tehran for token veils slipping off their neatly coiffured hairdos, and one of the first edicts issued after the Taliban re-took Afghanistan was that women would only be permitted to study at university wearing full-body robes and face-veils.

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From RTÉ Radio One Morning Ireland, further restriction have been imposed on the women of Afghanistan by the country's hardline new government. With Mahbouba Seraj, co-founder of the Afghan Women's Network.

In Western countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, or here in Ireland, the policing of women’s bodies is done through the media, family expectations, peer pressure, workplace rules, and other nebulous forms of social control. And it is not just men doing the policing.

Women co-operate by being openly critical of their sisters’ fashion faux-pas, as in the Walsh column, and yet also denigrating them for transgressions particularly those involving sexuality, as in Merkel’s Oslo opera dress.

For example, there is an unwritten fashion rule that a woman can reveal skin up top (cleavage and shoulders) or down below (thighs and legs) but never both at the same time for fear of looking lower-class and 'slutty’.

Yet highly eroticised and skin-revealing clothing is regularly worn by rich celebrities and models like the Kardashian and Jenner women in media images marketed to women and teen girls (and increasingly, pre-teen girls) as ideals of beauty and liberated self-fulfilment.

Hyper-sexualisation of female bodies is sold to us as empowerment, such as in Beyoncé’s Run the World (Girls) in which the gyrating singer and backup dancers in corsets proclaim "we run this mutha". Or take Cardi B’s WAP (an acronym standing for "wet-ass pussy") declaring "I don’t cook, I don’t clean / But let me tell you how I got this ring" suggesting that it is her sexual prowess that allows her to dominate men.

Then, there has been the sudden rise of OnlyFans, the content-sharing website which has democratised porn. Once-upon-a-time, sex-work and pornography was the preserve of a small minority of women who faced substantial social barriers and costs to enter the industry. Now, any young woman with a smart phone can sell explicit content to paying customers.

Yet, it is still the sexual objectification - treating women as sex-objects and evaluating their worth on that basis - that is problematic because research has established a link between it and sexual aggression against women.

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From RTÉ Radio One's Drivetime, Katie Hannon tells us that the 'Women of Honour' have released a new statement responding to Minister Simon Coveney.

Although sexual violence has long been studied in psychology, sociology, and behavioural science (to name a few disciplines), there is now emerging research in neuroscientific areas like cognitive processing, that has discovered a connection between viewing female bodies as sexual objects and a process of dehumanisation in sexual violence.

The link goes like this: when we view women as sex objects, our brains start to dehumanise them. That means we think of them as less than human (like animals or machines) and lacking human qualities like rationality, logic, competence, emotional depth, morality etc.

Not everyone then becomes violent towards women, of course, but it is dehumanisation that underlies the actions of sexual aggressors, as Bhuvanesh Awasthi explains in his summary of the research.

There are many other contributing factors to sexual aggression against women not discussed here; it is certainly not only the media and society’s seeming obsession with female beauty and sexiness that explains harassment, stalking, sexual assault and rape.

But given that they do have a role, we might do well to tackle the problem in considering how we might improve the lives of women. At the very least, we should stop knocking the women we’ve elected to run our country, simply for how they look.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ