Ashley James: ‘When Will We Stop Sexualising Women For Merely Existing?’

'The sexualisation of women is systemic'

Ashley James

by Charlotte Roberts |
Updated on

On Monday this week, I woke up feeling excited for my regular appearance on hit daytime TV show This Morning. I was there to chat about everything going on in the morning’s newspapers, and I knew I wanted an outfit that would make me feel amazing. I had the perfect choice: a Nadine Merabi suit.

When I first saw the suit online, it was love at first sight. Having given birth to my second child last year, I’m still in that postnatal place where my body is different to what it once was. I’m breastfeeding, my bones are adjusting, and I still don’t quite know what size I am. It’s hard enough getting dressed in the morning as it is, let alone getting dressed when nothing feels quite right. That’s exactly why this suit felt perfect. I’m all for dopamine dressing, and the gorgeous shade of purple was right up my street. Putting it on, I felt happy and confident. Then I came off air, and the DMs came in. It seemed not everyone loved the suit as much as I did.

After the show shared a clip of me talking about how important it was to stop objectifying women and policing their bodies, lo and behold, here were comments objectifying me. The irony is palpable. ‘Is this why she wore her revealing waistcoat?’ wrote one woman. ‘Lovely suit, but not for morning TV.’ Another added, ‘Wants to be taken seriously and comes dressed like this?’

One comment stuck out to me most: ‘Even as a woman, I do not want to see a vast expanse of your cleavage, and I’ve messaged This Morning to tell them this too. Breasts are beautiful, but not to be shown off on a morning programme.’

Did I have cleavage, I asked myself? It hadn’t even occurred to me that the suit could be anything other than perfectly acceptable. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I took to Instagram to share what was now a wealth of ludicrous comments about my outfit and body, asking the question, when will we stop sexualising women for merely existing?

'Every time I was blamed, it was further reinforcement that my body was the problem'

Having been in the public eye for over a decade now, the comments don’t hurt me the way they used to. I’m done feeling ashamed of my body. What does worry me though is knowing that so little has changed. I couldn’t help but think about all the times in my life I’ve been told to cover up. ‘You can’t wear that, you’ll distract the boys’, ‘Gosh, you just love the attention!’ The jibes felt constant. And when the boys at school would ping my bra strap, it would be me that took the fall, my reaction shrugged off as an overreaction. Every time I was blamed, it was further reinforcement that my body was the problem.

I’m confident enough now to know that these comments hold no weight. I’ve overcome the diet industry and unrealistic beauty standards, and even in my postpartum era I refuse to shrink myself to fit anyone’s expectations. But in an ideal world, I actually wouldn’t want to have big boobs. In fact, contrary to what many seem to think, I don’t love my breasts at all. I’ve never loved them.

I developed boobs early, reaching a 30GG by the time I was 14. While friends were picking out their first bras from La Senza, donned with cherry prints and Winnie The Pooh, I was dragged into lofty department stores. Girly patterns were replaced with practical and supportive so-called granny bras. ‘Why aren’t there any nice bras’, I’d wonder to myself. ‘Just why do they go up so high?’

To this day, I remember the vulgar comments I would get from the boys in school (‘Can I have a tit wank?’) While teachers seemed to think I loved the attention, the reality was that I didn’t. It forced me to quit playing sports, ever aware of the boys on the side-lines waiting to see if I’d ‘jiggle.’ From my body alone, boys, teachers, and the people around me had deemed me a slut. At one point, I remember someone saying ‘Ashley, you’re an intelligent girl, and you have a choice. You can choose to be brains, or you can choose to be beauty.’

Fast forward a few years and I was sat in the GP surgery with my mum, hearing the doctor tell me that I wasn’t old enough for breast reduction surgery, that it was too big of a choice to be made so young. It’s sad to think that a child can be sexualised and shamed to the point that they want to modify their body in order to no longer feel responsible for the attention they bring, and then subsequently have no autonomy over it either.

Even today, I still feel the same stress prickling away when I pick out what to wear. Is it too slutty? It is too much? Maybe I should find something with a higher neckline, but then will I labelled too ‘mumsy’? Endless questions rattle through my head, an all-consuming battle that leaves me damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

'Raising good men feels even more of a responsibility than raising daughters'

By all backwards societal standards, my boobs are old now. I’m in my late 30’s and I’ve had two children. They’re not perky, they’ve breastfed my two babies, yet this past week shows I still face the same hyper-sexualisation that has followed me since girlhood.

Looking at the comments under my This Morning clip, it’s hard to ignore that a lot of them come from women. I think we all have elements of internalised misogyny that we’re unlearning, and many would do well to acknowledge that within themselves. It’s the culture we’ve grown up in, told that boys like girls who leave ‘just the right amount’ to the imagination. Opening my phone each morning, I’m still faced with an array of tabloid headlines about ‘flaunting figures’ and ‘leggy displays’, as if our bodies are objects to be displayed rather than just the vessels that carry us through life. From dress codes to get into bars to our flawed judicial systems that always seem to ask, ‘But what was she wearing?’, it’s clear that the sexualisation of women is systemic.

When my son was born, everyone told me ‘He’ll be a heartbreaker!’ When my daughter was born, it was ‘You’ll have to lock her up.’ I can’t help but think, if we’re going to lock one of the genders up, why not lock up the gender that committed 98% of sexual offences in the year ending March 2020? With incel culture on the rise and men like Andrew Tate celebrated globally, raising good men feels even more of a responsibility than raising daughters.

My message is this: we need to stop putting the onus on women, telling them that by simply existing, they attract attention. When you repeatedly tell little girls to cover up to avoid unwanted attention, you tell her that her body is shameful. That little girl grows up to believe that it’s our responsibility to not get harassed. Women are consistently dubbed attention seekers – but maybe consider that we don’t actually want the attention that we’re given.  And maybe, our bodies shouldn’t be the focus anyway. It’s a cliché, but our bodies are the least interesting thing about us – and I can promise that what we say is far more interesting.

As told to Charlotte Roberts.

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