The other day I was cycling home when I stopped at a junction with traffic lights. A huge stretched limo – you know, those achingly tacky ones, a giant Hummer, the sort rolled out by chavs at proms – turned at the lights, and took the corner so badly that the driver was eyeball-to-eyeball with me, and gestured, impatiently, that I should move back.
This pissed me off on several levels. Firstly, I was right where I was supposed to be – in the bicycle box – and yet he showed no sign of apology that he was cutting into the opposite lane of traffic, but merely anger at me – a tiny bicycle – hindering his intended route. Secondly, I knew that corner was perfectly possible for large vehicles because I have stopped in precisely the same place on many an occasion and watched as double-decker buses swung around it, comfortably missing me and my floral basket. Thirdly, because there is no “reverse” gear on a bicycle and therefore I had to ungainly waddle backwards, my bike between my legs, in order to allow him through. And fourthly because I thought “I bet he wouldn’t have reacted that way if I were in a car”. Cars are expected to take up space on the road. Bicycles are not.
(Later on, I wondered: are bicycles to cars on the road what women are to men in a patriarchal society? More to come at a later date).
But what really hacked me off was that as the limo eventually inched around the corner and took off up the road, one of the delightful inhabitants of the back recesses yelled out the window at me, and the words he used weren’t variants on “Bloody move”, “Stupid bicycle”, or even “Get your arse out of our way” (all of which would, at least, have had some basis in truth). Oh no. The pejorative they chose to yell was “Fucking slag”.
Now it wasn’t that I was upset, merely perplexed; disappointed, even. Firstly, I wondered, how did they know my sexual history? Were they well-acquainted with my habits regarding men? (Or, indeed, women? Would a man consider a woman a fucking slag if she has slept with hundreds of other women, but no men? The mind boggles). Why did they feel the need to tell me I had slept with too many people because I had had the audacity to stop my bicycle in a location inconvenient to their progress?
Now one could suggest that what they yelled out of the window actually had, in practice (perish the thought!), no bearing whatsoever on how many men had found their way into my bedroom. One might suggest that the word “slag” (or whore, or slut) no longer has the direct definition of “woman who has had many sexual partners”. Instead, it now merely means “woman I do not like”.
How has this linguistic metamorphosis taken place? Since when were women of open-minded sexual morals considered definitively bad? Hold on, I know this one . . . oh, right. Always.
And the thing about the word “slag” is that how many people you’ve slept with obviously can’t be guessed from a quick glance at a woman walking down the road, so in reality if someone calls you that, it means naff all. But more to the point: even if you were strutting along with your “magic number” tattooed across your forehead, it still means naff all, because surely we’ve come far enough along in society to know that it doesn’t matter even one tiny iota how many people a woman has slept with so long as she was happy to do so, wasn’t coerced, and kept herself protected. But even though we reiterate this point again, and again, the stigma remains, and the first insult out of a lazy person’s mouth when denigrating a woman is almost guaranteed to be “you slag/slut/whore”. Regardless of whether her crime was queue-jumping, or shoplifting, or interrupting, or nabbing the last brownie, or getting in the way of your limo. The offending woman’s sexual history is called into question not because it’s related but because it’s the worst thing. Isn’t there something deeply wrong with that?
What interested me as well was that on this occasion they had neglected to use the word “fat”, which usually makes it into these sorts of abuses. Men don’t really get this, either. I mean: I’ve seen men insult other men by calling them “fat c*nts” or whatever, but this usually only happens when the man is actually fat. Whereas with women, calling them fat anything is a standard insult, regardless of their BMI. It’s a hurtful accusation because there are two stock insults for a woman: calling into question her looks, or sexual history – the two things which, traditionally, were indeed the sum of a woman’s entire worth. And which, apparently, still are.
Caitlin Moran describes in How To Be A Woman the potency of “fat” as an insult.
“The accusation is so strong, it is still effective even if it has no basis in the truth whatsoever. I have seen size 10 women being silenced by this line – as if they feel the accuser has somehow sensed that they secretly have a “fat aura” or will become fat later in life, and called them on it”.
And it’s weird, really, because surely there are far more serious and hard-hitting insults which would actually be significantly more painful to receive? “You’re a selfish, untrustworthy, bad friend with questionable morals; you’re a hypocrite, a liar, a thief; you can’t control your spending, you have commitment issues, you didn’t get a promotion because you’re crap at your job, and you avoid seeing your grandmother because you’re scared of being confronted by your own mortality”.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
Maybe it’s easier to just say “Well, you’re an ugly slag”. Because – quite simply – that sums up everything.
These days, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Studies carried out by the Universities of Surrey and Melbourne found that “almost half of girls between seven and 12 want to be slimmer”. And 2014’s British Social Attitudes Survey found that’ “poor body image [in women] does not naturally recede alongside the self-consciousness of youth”; in both the 18-34 and 65+ age categories, just 63% of women were satisfied with their appearance. This is compared to 74% of men. Overall, twice as many men as women (11% to 5%) were found to be actively dissatisfied with the way they looked. Glamour magazine conducted a survey which found that “on average, women have 13 negative body thoughts daily”. And another study showed that at least twice as many women as men consider themselves overweight when they’re actually not.
We have it so ingrained as women that our worth is tied up in the way we look and how chaste we’ve kept ourselves that being called a “fat ugly slag” pretty much denigrates our entire existence in one fell swoop. It doesn’t matter whether the subject has a PhD / beautifully well-brought-up children / Nobel Prize / fulfilling career / mountains of friends / stunning creativity / wicked sense of humour. There are very few women who will allow such a comment to slide unquestioningly from their backs, without the niggling “But am I fat and ugly?” which segues seamlessly into “. . . And how I have let myself get like this? Why aren’t I thin and beautiful? How have I so utterly failed?” And as a result, no matter the initial problem or mistake, the follow-up thought is inevitably “and this never would have happened if I were a size 6”. If I were slim – if I were pretty (and the two, these days, are interchangeable) – I would be a generally better person. Life would be easier.
And so telling a woman “you’re fat” is tantamount to saying “you’re a failure”. And the woman will believe it.
Meanwhile a man with a normal BMI being told he is fat is more likely to glance, perplexed, at his categorically average physique and reply “But . . . I’m not fat!” Case closed. Insult failed. Next comment, please.
Of course, this isn’t to say that men aren’t expected to look a certain way; the 2012 Body Image Report found that “One in three men would sacrifice a year of life to achieve their ideal body” which is terrifying in itself. Despite this, the base, irrelevant insult “you’re fat” is nonetheless frequently hurled at women, though rarely at men. And the accompanying “slag” is for females only because to suggest that a man is sexually promiscuous is nothing short of a compliment. Even today. Even when all of you’ve done is stop your bicycle in a designated space and impeded the movement of a mishandled limousine, the only response is “you’re a woman who’s slept with multitudes of men and that makes you an abomination”. Albeit abbreviated, natch.
Despite our advancements, successes, and huge achievements for women in every area of life, being considered a “fat ugly slag” is simply as bad as it gets.
Isn’t that a reason to need feminism?