Women in the Noughties: Self-loathing and scared?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

“…for the first time in the whole of our history, our unhappiness didn’t come from men or oppression. It came from us. From other women. From within. The Noughties was the decade of self-hate.”

This was the depressing conclusion Camilla Long came to as she reviewed the decade in terms of women’s issues for this week’s Sunday Times.

Apparently we should have spent the Noughties celebrating the joys of being female. Freed from the bondage of inequality, by the dawn of the new millennium we'd "conquered men and marriage and boardrooms and babies". Surely this should have been our time to shine.

Alas not. Long believes we've ended up slaves to fashion, consumed by worries about our body hair, obsessed by Botox and boob jobs and neurotic about our weight. Inevitably all the standard Noughties clichés get a mention - footballers' wives, the 'size zero debate', reality television, Carrie Bradshaw. Yes, she says, we made up for the emptiness of our lives by maxing out our credit cards and attempting to find happiness through shoes and binge drinking.

As if that wasn't enough, the misery doesn't end here - oh no - we're completely unhappy and depressed with our lot in life. Here she references The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, the much-discussed study released by the national Bureau of Economic Research earlier in the year, which asked women to rate their happiness. The study showed that women’s' happiness has steadily declined since the 1970s and spawned a rash of anguished newspaper and magazine articles.

Of course there's plenty of truth in the article. Many women have spent the past ten years becoming more and more obsessed with achieving the 'perfection' of eternal youth, a bikini body to die for and career success. We will remember this decade as the one where the cosmetics industry and media-approved beauty myth became so unattainable that it could only truly be achieved by way of a combination of starvation and digital retouching.

On the other hand, the article certainly doesn't speak for all - or even most - women when it speaks of the equality we'd supposedly achieved by the beginning of the decade, the supposed lack of oppression from men, or indeed the factors that supposedly rule our lives. A few women did manage to 'conquer' men, reproduction and boardrooms – those lucky few who often had plenty of privilege to start with.

And although many women strive for the ideal of thinness and beauty, cosmetic surgery and ‘It bags’ aren’t even a consideration for most of them because they cost far too much.

As Long rightly points out, we’re pressured to succeed academically, in the workplace, as mothers, domestically and even when it comes down to finding the perfect partner – but the fact there has been no significant shift in men viewing women as equals or sharing the responsibilities of childcare and housekeeping often means yet more stress and worry as we try to juggle everything.

“The Noughties has left a generation…feeling puzzled and scared,” sums up Long – blaming a lack of positive role models, obsession with celebrity and too much pressure to achieve.

This may be, but it was her parting shot that left me feeling truly puzzled:

“That role model, of course, used to be feminism. Where, in this open dishwasher of female emotion, has feminism gone? Well, feminism just…went away,” she finishes, admitting that she finds this “kind of sad”.

I know it wouldn’t really be in keeping with the doom-filled tone of the piece to discuss any recent resurgence in feminist activity but the efforts of many thousands of women over the past decade can’t just be dismissed and ignored.

Revived Reclaim the Night marches. Fantastic events for International Women’s Day. Women’s organisations involved in a whole host of activity from campaigning against injustice to running arts festivals to helping the abused and setting up book groups. Young women flying the feminist flag at our universities and schools.

The 2006 launch of a new feminist magazine, Subtext. Numerous books being published and of course, the explosion in networking, discussion and organisation provided by the blogosphere. Efforts by women to change existing legislation or bring about new laws. Sites like this one, or Women’s eNews, or The F Word, providing news for those of a feminist persuasion.

Society may have spent the Noughties trying to give feminism and feminists a bad reputation. Some women may be reluctant to label themselves as feminists – but it doesn’t mean we don’t exist. For the past decade we’ve been portrayed as catty, miserable and hysterical, out only to bring each other down and promote self-loathing. As the next decade begins, we need to fight this as much as we can.

This post was originally written for BitchBuzz. Image via Virgin Media.

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