Why women feel the pressure to be hotties

February 18, 2005
Toronto Star
By Judy Gerstel

Not all that long ago, says Francine Pelletier, "women who flaunted their sexuality lost all credibility. She'd be deemed a floozie — and that was it."

But that's no longer the case. Au contraire.

Now, a brazen display of female sexuality is not only tolerated, says Pelletier, former host of Fifth Estate. "It's encouraged.

"There's a real pressure, a bullying, to be that hottie no matter who you are."

How and why we got from there to here, and how it feels for women, is territory Pelletier explores in her documentary television series, Sex, Truth and Videotape, airing Monday nights at 10 on Newsworld.

The introductory show last week focused on confessions about sex by such celebrities as comedian Mary Walsh and novelist Susan Swan.

It gets even better over the next five episodes.

Coming up on Monday, "Sex and Beauty" looks at the relationship between a woman's appearance and her sex life. Do beautiful women have more and better sex? Future episodes explore sex and age, the matches people make, and "the first time."

What possessed Pelletier, a self-described feminist, to explore the status of sex in the lives of women?

In a word, Afghanistan.

During the war there, Pelletier says she was "bowled over by the sharp contrast between, on the one hand, images of women veiled from head to foot and on the other hand, the images of women here — Sex and the City images."

She found it "unimaginable that we actually live on the same planet."

The tension between the two sets of images stirred Pelletier to investigate how the dichotomy between the madonna and the whore, "which still exists so strongly in that part of the world, could have disappeared altogether in so short a time in this part of the world."

The 51-year-old veteran journalist began with no bias.

"I just waited for the answer," she says.

Society, she thinks, forgot to ask the question.

"We think because we're awash in sexual imagery, that we're a permissive, liberal society and that everyone's happy with that."

But are women really happy and comfortable with this? (And, she wonders, parenthetically, are men?)

One conclusion Pelletier reached, even after hours of videotaped conversations with women, is that it's difficult to make sense of the "progression" from an era in the recent past that was oppressive to women to the liberated present, which, Pelletier believes, is nevertheless "not women friendly."

And yet, she acknowledges, "Part of it is our own doing as feminists."

We've gone from centuries of being seen as "erotic objects," she points out, through the feminist era of "wanting to have a bigger say in things" and therefore deliberately sidelining our sexuality to, finally, a post-feminist reclaiming of female sexuality, a sexual liberation promoted by the likes of Madonna and Camille Paglia that is almost assaultive.

"If a young woman today thinks — and I think they do — that it's perfectly all right to have her tits hanging out of her blouse, because everyone does it and it's her body, that's (considered) `girl power.'

"But you cannot get away with walking around half-naked and not expect bad stuff to happen.

"For men, this dichotomy of whore and virtuous woman is much more alive than it is for women, especially young women. There's a dissonance."

Besides, she says about this "tremendous rush by women to be sexual, to look like the buxom, long-legged blonde" — "it's become ridiculous. And men don't even like it that much. They can appreciate the esthetics but they're not overly impressed by the women. In fact, they're embarrassed by the behaviour. Women are looking more and more like whores in their eyes. It's gone out of all proportion."

So where does the pressure come from for women to be openly sexual, to show up at work and on the subway with cleavage (even in winter!)? Pelletier calls it "a real bullying aspect to sexuality — you will be a hottie: that is the new commandment.

"This model of the perfectly desirable woman has become the model overriding all others and it's impossible for women not to want to be that, in a way."

In the end, Pelletier suggests, we women have fallen into a trap of our own making.

Proclaiming our sexual power, we're willing accomplices to a society that exploits female sexuality and, perhaps more than ever, treats women as erotic objects.

"The influence of Sex and the City gave the overriding impression that women were totally controlling their own lives, had developed healthy sexual appetites and would go wherever these appetites would bring them," she says. "But, at the same time, they were still looking for Mr. Right. They were these gorgeous, sexy girls who flaunted themselves and suggested the world is a better place for being able to do that and that there is no price to pay: `men will like you, you are who you are, you can make mistakes and carry on.'

"But I think it is more complicated than that. Much more. Every woman over 40 knows it's much more complicated than that."

As for those women wearing burkas in Afghanistan who inspired Pelletier, she says, while acknowledging the oppression and terrible constraints, "It must be a relief to be someone invisible and not have that pressure."

"We have our own uniforms here. We think we're so free, but we are living under our own constraints."