There are certain places where beauty is extreme, and everyone seems to have it. One of those places is Tokyo, where I have been living. It is an affluent city, and as such, people-watching is like browsing a catalogue. The clothes are elegant and expensive, hair and makeup slick, footwear impossibly clean and for women, totally impractical. Last week I saw a woman on crutches on the train wearing heels. That's commitment.
The bodies underneath the carefully draped Italian linen are slender and lithe, observant of careful calorie control. Among these impeccably-dressed animatrons, I feel like a mass of pink flesh. Which, given my average size, is ridiculous. It would be ridiculous even if I were big. But having felt fat since before puberty, like most little girls exposed to the culture they're being trained to fit into, it's a feeling I'm used to, and one I prefer to ignore.
Sometimes it's impossible to ignore, though. Squeezing my own body fat in front of the mirror is a horrible, but familiar experience. Reflecting on the self-loathing involved makes me red with rage and embarrassment. I should be above that.
Today's women are united more by their collective disgust of their bodies than they are by any other factor. Many statistics consolidate this, a scary one being that 51 per cent of nine and ten-year-old middle-class girls in America feel better about themselves if they are on a diet.
Different strands of feminism, those which emphasise women's economic participation, peace activism, campaigns around sexual safety or sex work, or around women's health or parenting issues, consistently encounter women who can't identify with their subset of feminism. Perhaps they don't experience violence, or they have enough buying power to not feel economically isolated.
But all women know what it feels like to hate their bodies. To hate the only material thing they truly own, the vehicle with which they participate in life. It's truly absurd.
The preference for women's thinness is often thought of as a straight male preference. But given the variety and complexity of male sexualities, and the changing standards of beauty between generations and cultures, it is difficult to believe that there is one 'type' that straight men biologically prefer to look at.
The body-type plastered everywhere we care to look is long and bony, broad shouldered and with a hollowed-out chest. It is white. It might be truly attractive to some straight men, but if anyone's sexual preferences are communicated in those images, it is the iconic gay male designers who pioneered the modern fashion industry. The waif aesthetic resembles adolescent male beauty.
The architects of this beauty are of course, as men, also complicit in bolstering male privilege, even if they don't enjoy it to the same degree that straight men do. But the prestige ascribed to this body type — it is, after all, the body of the fashion industry, a huge economy — should not be conflated with sex. It is about class. That kind of beauty takes a lot of time and money.
Which might be the reason straight men don't volunteer their objections to the bag-of-bones look they are taught to admire. Maybe they're not aware of how their conscious-level tastes have been manipulated as much as women's have. They want what they're taught to want, not what they really want. In our culture, the act of selecting mates is more about social status than it is about expressing the honest desires we have. Of course individuals break this mould all the time, but structurally, it's something we are constantly fighting with.
Magazine beauty has a high status because of the cost of its maintenance. This is no biological basis for attraction. In other cultures, different body shapes are prioritised for the same reason — prestige — with the same negative effect on women's self-worth.
We often hear women excuse their indulgences in fashion by declaring their exercise of 'personal choice'. But we women are looked-at people, constantly weighed up by our appearance. We are unable to imagine how we'd present ourselves if we weren't looked at, if our choices were truly for ourselves alone. It is highly unlikely our choices would reflect the arbitrary trends of fashion. Until we are not looked at, we won't know true choice.
This uncritical fixation on 'choice' — a capitalist idea, really — brings to mind an unpopular quote by Simone de Beauvoir. The French feminist once declared, 'No woman should be authorised to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.'
It sounds as though de Beauvoir doesn't want women to exercise choice. But what she's really saying is that we are so shaped by our history of confinement — to the domestic, the emotional, the beautiful — that given the freedom to 'choose', the easiest choice is to stick with the thing that has oppressed us all along.
Obviously, women should oppose the structures that restrict their choices. And they should do it with their wallets. But men should oppose them too; as it is, they are reduced to consumers of women's appearances that have little to do with the human dimensions of their desires.
Ellena Savage is a Melbourne writer who edits Middlebrow, the arts liftout in The Lifted Brow.