Woman in a state of dysphoria

dysphoria  (noun)  A state of unease

* * *

I’m on the tram, entering Melbourne from the southern suburbs, coming up to the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, when it hits.

Bonds – the Australian underwear brand – has gone for complete saturation in its ‘100 Years of …’ campaign. There are smaller ads behind the benches at the tram stop (‘100 years of bums’), there’s a larger one appearing periodically in the electric signboard wrapped around Young and Jackson on the corner (‘100 years of wow’), and finally there’s the huge billboard topping them all: ‘100 years of babes’. Babes.

Bonds 100 Years of babes editWhat kind of make-me-puke, patronising language is that?

That this particular ad happens to include a couple of men, not just women, doesn’t really improve things. In fact, it could hardly be a more perfect illustration of a straight-up split between your bog-standard masculinity and femininity. The boys are muscular, they’re wearing more clothes and they look ready to jump in and ‘drive’ … whatever it is that needs driving. The girls are very slender, they’re exposing more skin, and by their looks and postures, they’re communicating they’re probably OK with not driving right now. I’m sure somewhere in their real lives they’re as ready to drive as the next person; they just aren’t being encouraged to communicate that right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s all meant in good fun. And don’t think it’s the amount of skin being shown that’s getting to me, either. As underwear goes, Bonds is pretty innocuous.

What’s getting to me is seeing my own kind perpetually represented as utter boobs. And this – layer upon layer of ads, in the very heart of the city – amplifies the effect a hundredfold.

As if that weren’t enough, L’Oréal is presenting a campaign on the other side of the tram stop. ‘ColourRicheMakesMe …’ More pouty faces – passive, ever-promising.

L'Oreal tram edit

Seriously! Are they for real?

Of course, no one takes ads literally, least of all the people who create them. Everyone knows they are about brand recognition and persuading people to buy stuff. Everyone recognises the tricks of the trade, the game that’s being played. I mean: don’t they?

Yet behind all the strategies, all the noise of advertising, is one mammoth deceit: that to respond to the choices they present is an exercise in genuine power. Those whispery, distracting choices that are not so much about briefs or boyleg, orange fever or silky toffee, as they are about opt in or drop out

And it is that opt in or drop out message that gets us in the gut, that haunts so many of us every time we think about what our life might be and how we’re supposed to set about making it happen.

Is that what we want? For our environment to be choked with images that set us up to believe opting in is first and foremost about maintaining a mirage of self? That it is necessary to look and behave in certain ways before we can even begin to feel entitled to act, to challenge, to count?

* * *

Dysphoria – a profound unease – is to look up one day and see your own kind represented everywhere you look, and to nowhere see yourself.

It is not that I want to see physicality like mine represented everywhere I go. I’m not talking about wanting to see tiny women like me looming from billboards and tram stops, posturing and flaunting. ‘Tiny’ doesn’t much express my self-identity in any case. The me‑ness of me.

It’s not the body, as such, that I’m talking about.

I’m talking about power, capacity, mind.

Many women refuse to be an ornament, and to fritter away precious life on what is merely ornamental. Let me see that message dominating the advertising and media, everywhere I turn.

Many women have accepted the challenges and responsibilities of choice, and have made their own way, prepared to ride the consequences. Let me see that kind of courage plastered across the heart of my city.

Many women know that to stop and to wait and to fantasise about what life might bring is pure poison to a living soul. Let me see represented those women, who are realising the pure and serious ambitions of their girlhood.

* * *

The performance of ‘femininity’ attached to being female – have I ever really understood it? Why on earth do we acquiesce to it even still? Stand that way. Walk that way. Wear that thing. Show or not show. Bend your head and bare your neck. Smile. Smiiiiile.

Some women say that being different to the ‘ideal’ freed them, as girls, to follow another path, to define themselves another way.

Molly Ivins, a political commentator whose particular speciality was covering the toe-curling shenanigans of Texan politicians, wrote:

I should confess that I’ve always been more of an observer than a participant in Texas Womanhood: the spirit was willing but I was declared ineligible on grounds of size early. You can’t be six feet tall and cute, both … I spent my girlhood as a Clydesdale among thoroughbreds. I clopped along amongst them cheerfully, admiring their grace, but the strange training rituals they went through left me secretly relieved that no one would ever expect me to step on a racetrack …

Sometimes it’s our inability to fit in that saves us – writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and general treaders-of-the-road-less-taken.

* * *

If you were a bit more clued in than I generally am about these things, you might have recognised that one of the models in the blitzkrieg of Bonds ads is the Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. In fact she is the new Bonds ‘ambassador’, aka ‘brand babe’. (Could two terms be more oxymoronic?)

And you might say – well – isn’t she an example of a woman making it happen? Getting on with her stuff? Choosing?

And yes, she absolutely is. After all, she moved from Mullumbimby to Miami at 15 by herself, partly to get away, partly to pursue her interest in music. She’s got to be the opposite of gutless. But still she’s in there, pouting and posturing like the others, in fact outdoing them on all counts.

Like I said, Bonds underwear is pretty innocuous. Iggy brings an injection of sex hitherto unknown to Bonds advertising. Or at least, that was my reading of the situation, until I read this quote from Pacific brands chief executive David Bortolussi in the Australian Business Review:

‘What we love about Iggy is her straight-talking, can-do, Aussie girl personality.’

Uh … right.

* * *

There are antidotes to all this. I mean, apart from moving to your own desert island or writing frustrated blog posts or just somehow remaining inured to it. They are like tiny bursts of colour – impudent knots – in a huge fabric of business-as-usual.

Australian comedian Celeste Barber sends up the posturings of celebrities in photos she posts on Instagram.

Sonia Singh, a Tasmanian scientist made redundant from Australia’s primary science research organisation, CSIRO, had the brilliant idea of taking a handful of overpainted dolls and replacing their ludicrously exaggerated ‘make-up’ with natural-looking features. Photos of the dolls went viral, and a new business was born.

There’s a ‘#nomakeup’ Twitter feed and stories crop up from time to time of women (and occasionally men like Karl Stefanovic) who are challenging the conventions of ‘feminine’ presentation.

What’s striking, though, is how often these are about expressing what women are not – that is, that women are not just about their bodies – while making the challenge in a way that is still body-centred.

Is it my imagination, or do we grow more faint-hearted when we try to express just what it is we are?

Perhaps it’s that we’re reluctant to exchange one straightjacket for another? Fair enough.

Maybe that leaves us more space to challenge, to enact, to invent, to hammer out our real and our possible selves with commitment, if not downright ferocity.

Maybe that Leaves us free to focus on women can do, not on what they are or what they look like.

Next International Women’s Day (Tuesday, March 8), I want to see the intersection at Flinders and Swanston given over to HUGE images of women who are getting on with their stuff – and trampling the gender divide nonsense underfoot while they’re about it. No posturing or pouting.

That would cure my dysphoria, right enough.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015