Body image: ‘It’s all a trap to keep us in our place and to slow us down’

Attacking a woman’s appearance is part of violence against women, FemFest hears

'Be a fabulous, fierce feminist," shouts veteran feminist and academic Ailbhe Smyth, to the audience of young Irish women gathered in Croke Park earlier this month for FemFest, a conference on leadership and body image.

Body image and leadership might seem a strange juxtaposition of themes for this National Women’s Council event, but speaker after speaker confirmed that women’s public and private confidence and self-esteem are very tightly bound up with body image – and the 21st-century obsession with social media profiles doesn’t help.

“What we look like and think we should look like, or what others think we should look like, it’s all a trap to keep us in our place and to slow us down. This constant anxiety about our appearance can blight our lives and it’s important to work out what to do about it,” says Smyth, chairwoman for the discussion on body image.

Writer, comedian and feminist Tara Flynn says she's endlessly asked questions about what it's like to be a woman comedian. "One heckler shouted at me: 'It's a good thing you're funny, luv, because you're not good-looking.' The lads just don't get heckles about how they look. The problem for young women now is that they have a 24/7 audience even if they don't choose to have a public life."

Don’t read the online comments after anything you write on social media, was a point repeated by Flynn and others throughout the event.

“Feminism isn’t just for women. It’s that radical idea embraced by the 1916 Proclamation that men and women are equal, yet in our society, migrant women, women with addictions and women in the Traveller community are doubly disadvantaged,” Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Minister of State for Equality, New Communities and the Drugs Strategy, told the audience. “I’m a feminist.”

Single-gender schooling

Ó Ríordáin, the former principal of a secondary school for girls, adds it might be time to question single-gender schooling. “Maybe we can no longer stand over the system of gender separate schools. Let’s talk about why and for whose benefit do we separate boys and girls in schools?”

Audience member Lisa Fallon says one of the biggest issues for young women is being "shouted at and leered at on a night out".

Speaking about feminism itself, Fallon says: “I was cautious of the word for a long time for fear of seeming to be preachy or man-hating. But all women are here to promote gender equality.”

Tom Meagher, activist and advocate from the White Ribbon Campaign, the world's largest male-led campaign to end men's violence against women, also spoke at FemFest.

“Attacking women’s appearance to make them feel vulnerable is part of violence against women. The whole idea of women being commanded to be a certain way and then trivialised if they are upset about their appearance is so embedded in our society,” says Meagher, whose wife, Jill, was murdered in Melbourne in 2012.

Author Louise O’Neill spoke about her eating disorder and the fetishism of body image in the fashion industry when she worked in New York.

“I had wanted to be an actress when I was a child but I was 14 when my uncle died and I lost a stone in a month from grief. I got so much positive attention from it that I started a cycle of starvation, bingeing and purging. I went from thinking I wanted to be an actress to hating the idea of facing rejection based on what I looked like.”

After studying English at Trinity College Dublin, O'Neill moved to work at a fashion magazine in New York.

“I slipped back into not eating or sleeping but the crazy thing was everyone told me how well I looked, so it was hard trying to recover in an industry that was obsessed with thinness.”

Speaking from the audience, Claire Nevin said it was important to highlight the lack of rape crisis and domestic violence services for women. "We need to talk about what it is to be a victim of domestic violence. I was in an abusive relationship myself and although I'm an activist and a feminist, I didn't recognise it at first."

Abortion pills

Another audience member, writer Sarah Honan, spoke about the importance of talking about how women in Ireland are taking abortion pills to terminate their pregnancies.

“I’ve interviewed women who’ve had abortions here. And I feel they go through the same trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder that women do who are victims of physical abuse or assault. You can never take away a woman’s choice to have an abortion but you can take away her ability to do it safely.”

The attention turned to leadership in the afternoon. Niall Breslin (aka Bressie) spoke about what he believes are the essential leadership skills.

“You’ve got to park the ego. There’s no room for it. It slows everything down. And the other thing you need is lunacy – the madder the better – and responsibility and understanding that you can’t lead unless you look after your physical and mental health.

“For years, I didn’t have any compassion for myself and now I’m as mentally fit as anyone else but I work at it every day.”

Orla O'Connor: Director of the National Women's Council

FemFest grew out of a series of workshops on body image and leadership held with diverse groups of women throughout Ireland. A recent National Women’s Council of Ireland survey found that young women had the highest level of confidence in their own leadership skills but also the highest level of body image insecurities. As a group, they also had the greatest desire to see more diversity in leadership and to challenge the status quo.

“The workshops were an important part of our work to raise awareness of gender inequalities facing young women,” says Orla O’Connor.

“We are paid less for the work we do; we are held back by restrictive laws governing our reproductive rights and medical decisions; we face street harassment and we are marginalised in senior decision-making positions.”

Social media and the availability of online porn are heightening body image issues, she says.