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Found Feminism: Ann Summers Models

2012 February 9

Oh, this one is a doozy.

I wanted to include it because the responses I’ve been getting to it have been quite wide ranging. So, the story begins with that bastion of the High Street Sex Shops, Ann Summers, of whom I have always been reasonably supportive, despite their addiction to itchy lace and the colour pink.
Three white women stand wearing red and black underwear. The middle woman is curvy, with pale skin, rounded stomach and long black hair. She is the winner of the Ann Summers Modelling competition. Image via Ann Summers, used under Fair Use guidelines.

Why do I like them? Because in a world where sex, especially female participation and enjoyment is still taboo, this is a store that unashamedly caters to women and makes sex toys understandable, fun and available.

Together with the revolutionary Ann Summers parties, which are still going today, it provides safe adult sexual education away from schools or the XXX signage of the sleazy, intimidating stores of old. You can still find those stores in some parts of Soho, if you fancy something retro. Pack your own mac.

I love Lucy!

Anyway, Ann Summers ran a modelling competion, and now their windows are full of the image above. The winner, in the middle, is Lucy from Portsmouth. The vote was public and Lucy secured enough votes from whoever votes in public modelling competitions. The general public, I guess, which means that the general public have a very different, and arguably more representational, view of what a sexy woman looks like compared with the usual imagery.

I like the fact that Lucy is a size 16 (I believe that would be just about an ‘average’ size, right?). I like that she has won something she wants to win, that she is smiling and happy and confident. Part of feminism is about being able to look sexy and to enjoy looking sexy – without being called a slut, and without feeling as if you need to starve yourself to death. In which case, hurrah for Lucy!

I don’t know whether I love Lucy, I’m conflicted!

But part of me, perhaps a churlish and mean spirited part, wishes she’d won something else. Something where she kept her clothes on. Something that wasn’t about a narrow definiton of sexiness as standing around in red and black underwear for men to gawp at you.

I don’t like the idea of model competitions full stop – the whole idea that there are winners and losers in a world of body standards. There are too many women, too many shapes of their bodies, for there to be ‘correct’ ones. Sexiness isn’t about size. And this makes it about size. It makes it about “skinny” and “fat” – which is that Marilyn meme all over again, frankly.

Maybe I do love Lucy!

Yet there she is. On the high street. In a shop which is for women. And most of the women I talked to about this thought it was amazing, and when I put my objections about the sexualisation of women to them, they pointed out that this was Ann Summers, which is a sex shop, dammit, and that it was like me complaining that there were chocolates in Thorntons. They had a point. As did all of my friends who do like sexy, lacy (even pink) underwear.

I don’t know, I really don’t. Over to you…

6 Responses leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012

    I think it’s possible to both love and not love Lucy at the same time.

    As feminists we have ideals that we are always working towards. One of them is to live in a world where the “whole idea that there are winners and losers in a world of body standards” has become non-existent. Yet we do not live in that world and whilst we aim for it we can still cheer when a different view of what is sexy breaks through to stand beside the very homogeneous ideals we are fed daily.

  2. Metal-eating arachnid permalink
    February 9, 2012

    Re the sexualisation of women. I actually think that Ann Summers is one of the places where it’s *least* appropriate, and most invisible. Yes, it’s a sex shop – a sex shop aimed at women, and quite explicitly aimed at straight women. So its shopfront is full of women in sexy underwear – of course. But by that logic, shouldn’t we expect a sex shop aimed at straight men to be full of men in sexy underwear? As you say, Ann Summers is supposed to cater to female sexuality, enjoyment and participation. And the merchandise it sells is often focussed on female pleasure, which is nice. But its entire marketing/advertising strategy and image don’t say anything about female pleasure, or (hetero)sexual desire; they’re about women looking sexy. Now, the counter-argument to that is that looking sexy helps you feel sexy (hence lingerie being a positive force for women’s independent sexuality, etc). And I agree that that’s often so, and it’s not as if I think feeling/looking sexually attractive, whether that’s just by being naked, or by buying underwear, is a bad thing. But I think it also speaks to a wider issue whereby for men, sex is expected to centre around feeling desire, and for women, sex is expected to centre around feeling desired.

    The now-defunct blog really made me think about this – asking why the vast majority of erotica (even in genres primarily aimed at arousing straight women) had women on the covers, and campaigning for inclusion of more men. (It’s not very SFW.)

    All that said, I do think there’s a lot of good things about Ann Summers, and I too can be grateful that women with a wider variety of body shapes are getting to play the sexy game, even if I’m not sure about the game itself.

    Incidentally, if anyone wants to read a study of Ann Summers parties, class, gender and sexuality, you’re in luck, as somebody wrote one. (The cover is, of course, illustrated with a headless woman in her underwear.) Warning for being kind of academic, though. I mean, I enjoyed it, but I have to wade through long words and (Cook 2012)s most days, so…

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 9, 2012

      I think this is a really good bunch of points.

      There’s a wider issue, I think, around the marketisation of (het) female sexual desire as what you want to be, look like, and have done *to you* rather than *who you want to do*.

    • October 11, 2012

      Wow, that really made me think! You’re totally right. Everywhere, women enjoying sex is equated with women looking or feeling sexy – whether it’s Ann Summers, Cosmopolitan (which was the first magazine to give info on abortion and getting a divorce and, for all its faults, is the most sex-positive magazine out there) or even on some feminist blogs. Yet for men, enjoying sex is equated with looking at, desiring or having sex with women. The men act, the women are passively displaying themselves. I read a post from a psychologist once that said women, while having sex, see their performance from a third person view and try to give the porn star experience, policing their movements to compete with porn actors. Men don’t.

  3. Kirsty permalink
    February 9, 2012

    It’s also interesting that she *has* to represent at all (as in the Portsmouth paper link) – inspiring other ‘curvy girls’, showing that ‘sexy is all shapes’ etc. I mean, i guess it’s a positive message but why can’t she just have won and have nothing said about her weight? No-one would be chuffed about ‘representing size 0’, because it doesn’t need representation: it’s everywhere.

    In a way, I find her having to be a figurehead for sexy bigger girls more obnoxious – and patronising – than having a standard skinnikin in the shop window.

    (I might have explained it really badly though!)

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