Growing up, I can clearly remember breathing a sigh of relief after seeing a large red circle around another woman’s body. Vanessa Hudgens was the woman, who (at around the age of 20 years old) had dared to venture out in a bikini.
The ‘hoop of horror’ framing her thighs and, (just in case the large red circle wasn’t clear enough) a witty caption was tactfully placed next to it, reminding us that lazy Vanessa had given up on her gym routine. Circa 2008, this kind of content was peddled as necessary reading, reminding us that celebrities had the same ‘flaws’ that we did. When in actual fact, this was yet another way that the media could create a culture of shame around women.
Whilst the ‘circle of shame’ has all but disappeared from most glossy weekly magazines, the language is still very much the same. The headlines in the above photo are all taken within three months of one newspaper, and what might seem an arbitrary debate is actually incredibly important.
Taking over the circle of shame is ‘competition’. Gigi Hadid ‘proves she has the hottest body’, but only in comparison to another model, and this is the most insidious part. It continues to breed the need for women to compete when that’s what women have been forced to do their entire lives. Women must ‘fight’ to be a girl boss, work hard at the gym, wake up at 5am in the fucking morning to prove their worth.
But, this conversation so rarely is directed at men, that it’s become almost commonplace in the media. This is also a competition that no women can ‘win’ at. Too much success makes women unlikeable, the most obvious example being Taylor Swift.
There’s then the less subtle element of tabloid language. Slut-shaming.
Women in the media, cannot simply be sitting on the beach having a good time. Whilst you may call it sunbathing, you’re actually ‘flashing your assets’. Phrases like ‘flash’, ‘expose’ and ‘flaunt’, still litter the headlines of major publications, and always in the context of women. This will normally be coupled with some ‘candid’ (read – the subject is unaware that they’re having their photo taken) shots of said women, flaunting their ‘golden pins’. ‘Flaunting’ is a form of descriptive language defined as ‘displaying (something) ostentatiously, especially in order to provoke envy or admiration or to show defiance.’
That’s the point of referring to limbs and other vital body parts as assets that are there to be flaunted. Women are there to provoke envy and admiration. You’re supposed to hate the women who look too good, laugh at those that don’t, and most importantly you should acknowledge that you need to do more to look like them. This language is chosen specifically to ensure that women are reminded they shouldn’t get comfortable because that’s not what we’re there for. And, it’s dangerous.
Competing and flaunting aside, these women, framed in a sidebar of shame, are women, just like us. They’re judged against other women, shamed for showing skin and written as ‘lonely’ if they don’t. It’s a narrative that no woman will ever truly win at.
Nowadays, when I see a twenty-something woman wading into the sea with a red hoop of shame, surrounding her ‘problem areas’. I feel disheartened, I no longer want to partake in analysing the body of a stranger. More importantly, when I see Vanessa Hudgens laughing on the beach, her (slightly ‘too large’) thighs surrounded by a big red hoop, I can’t help but see myself in her.