If we are to properly understand women’s oppression in the West today, objectification and sexual performance must be understood as work. The sexual sell is real labour, propping up a socially mandated measure of erotic capital. From the working hours devoted to the purchase and strategic application of clothes and hair and beauty products, to the actual labour of dieting and exercise, to the creation and maintenance of sexual persona, self-objectification is work, first and foremost. Female sexuality, which every day becomes increasingly synonymous with objectification, is work.

Yesterday afternoon I was in my favourite sandwich shop in Bondi Junction, enjoying my avocado and salami while reading my book when I overheard an interesting radio advert. Two women are casually talking to each other and one says “You’re looking tired.” I must have zoned out at that point, because when the ad suddenly jumped to the name of a plastic surgeon, I realized that looking ‘tired’, apparently requires going under the knife now. What a wonderful world we live in!

Meat Market is Laurie Penny‘s first published work of critical commentary – of many I hope. It joins an impressive amount of journalistic writing, which can be found on her blog Penny Red, as well as The Guardian and New Statesman. Penny presents an overarching assessment of how many conflicting issues facing women today, from the continuing commodification of the bodies of women to the fragmenting within feminist ideology itself.

As such Meat Market is not a feminist work that continues to spell out basic tenets of the movement, already fought over for decades, instead challenging the complacency surrounding such notions as patriarchal society, or the modern liberated woman. “Why are we so afraid of women’s bodies“, she asks, that peculiar loathing for the female form in culture which demands it be plucked free of hairs, nipped, tucked and starved. I am reminded of Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject. However, this trend is highly visible in contemporary society and not an idea limited to academic journals about the unconscious.

Penny identifies the constant focus on feminine appearance as a form of labour, one which necessitates a state of constant anxiety. Far from being liberated, women today face an increasing set of prohibitions on their behaviour. Feminism itself is blamed for any societal trend that is considered bad, such as the breakdown of the family, or even teenage drunkenness. So how could it be said that female liberation has occurred?

It is this notion of everyday ‘labour’, that the author uses to investigate the hypocrisy of attitudes towards sex workers. Pornography has replaced natural sexuality in the minds of many, burlesque commodified from an ironic vision of the aristocracy to a commercial entertainment, the fetishised female form a marketing device for every product under the sun – and yet women who sell their own bodies are viewed with contempt, denied basic protections under the law. The prostitute is denied any agency in the media, described variously as drug addicted, or innately criminal.

Feminism has failed to address the rights of the sex worker, even as luminaries such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel have failed to acknowledge the status of transsexuals. Instead mainstream transphobia is indulged, gender reassignment surgery seen as a lifestyle choice that undermines the aims of feminist ideology. Penny points out that such a stance fails to consider women who are intersex and that by refusing to defend the rights of transsexuals, those who seek relief from their feelings of body dysmorphia are left at the mercy of the medical establishment.

Penny also discusses the treatment of anorexia in the media, which only reinforces the myth that women (as well as a growing percentage of men) begin to starve themselves out of a desire to appear more sexually attractive. To counter this claim she includes testimony from several anorexics describing how they in fact desired to eliminate any trace of femininity from their bodies, while newspapers feature the images of ‘size zero models‘.

The author insists that feminism must rediscover its political impetus and give recognition to the women whose lives are spent working on multiple fronts, as well as engage men who have become disempowered themselves.

This book presents a compelling argument for the reassessment of feminist values, as well as the need to challenge the false consciousness of modern men and women. Personally charged invective that demands to be heard. I read over underlined passages repeatedly after finishing the book.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.