‘The woman is a many-layered gateau’, decries the caption on one of French Connection’s latest Autumn collection ads And yet with her fungi-dull-cheeks and peg-dolly physique, the Advertising Standards Agency has clearly decided this latest slice of female representation tastes equally good, with or without the sardonicism.
What do I mean? I mean, how droll: she couldn’t look less like a cake if she creamed, clotted, and deposited her confected self on a harvest festival treat stall, ‘unstrictly homemade’ sign propping up her unspongey form.
Big saccharine substitute for a point, you may obviate. We’ve been gorging our faculties on these kinds ofhyper-emaciated imagesfor at least a decade now. And besides, hasn’t theriseof Devil’s Food Christina Hendricksfinally put paid to all this thin is the new thin obtusery (for this season, at least)? While one Voluptua clearly does not a revolution make, this isn’t about Sisiphyea’s weekly objection to clavical chic. Instead, in a perverse twist of two-pronged food/body fetishism, it’s about women ‘becoming’ the substances they ‘shouldn’t’ eat – a guilty dish du jour, witha bitter centre.
For years, the fashion and beauty industry has exploited women’s socially constructed sugar cravings by way of its duplicitous, synaesthesicbranding of everything from smoothie shampoo to candy-coloured nail varnish. And while woman as delectable consumable is hardly an original trope (anyone from Edmund Spenser to Tom Jones will happily ‘educate’ you there), now it seems craving for the substance, and self as the substance craved have been sandwiched indulgently together in oneself-mutilatory layer cake.
Check out the latest videos from Katie Perry and Timbaland/Justin Timberlake, if you want to see the cake-as self-as-sin trope in action. In the two Timbers’ ‘Carry Out’, women are depicted as consumers ofbaked treaty badness, endlessly dipping fingers into glutinous icing, the lyrics simultaneously relating the male protagonists’ intentions to feed the addressed sugar dumpling’s wayward appetite. By comparison, in Perry’s ‘California Gurls’, the shades of Skittles songstrel waylays Snoop Dogg and his jelly teddy army with Anchor-lite fire from two canisters attached to her cream bun bra top. So far, so tongue in cheek. But in post-feminist iconography, is it ever really a playful, avenging display when women combat male appetite with the very sugary delights they fear and fetishise, and are encouraged to identify as? And where will it end?
Follow this trajectory, of woman consuming self, of women resisting male ‘consumption’, and it suddenly makes sense how anorexia/extreme enervation can be configured as a feminist act. I should know, because I remember only too well how, in the throes of my own food strike some ten years ago now, men ceased to want a piece once there were all but bones for the picking. However perverse it sounds, it was a relief. For the first time in my life, I was free of male appetite and female criticism. And I believed it was liberating. Thank god things began to fall apart as proof that it was anything but.
Of course, anorexia could be empoweringif it wasn’t for the mild psychosis induced by starvation. Or the obsessive compulsive disorder that can see you on a flash cleaning frenzy in the morning and an out of the bin eating burst, come the afternoon. Or the increased susceptibility to cold, to infertility and osteoporosis. Or,above all, the totalitarian captureof the addiction to starvation itself.
Meanwhile, not content with merely substituting cakes for delectable garments, French Connection seems happy to inculcate an ‘I am my own cake!’ mantra in its female customers. If only many layered gateau girl wasn’t still sullenly staring out of the frame, eyes as doleful as empty cupcake cases, and if only cake wasn’t such a fundamental pleasure, I might be fooled for a second into thinking there was something in it.