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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 December 2007, 15:02 GMT
Is this empowering?
Page Three girl strips for a photo shoot

Sarah Montague, Today presenter
Once women burned their bras, today they send photos of their breasts to lad mags and call it liberating. Is this really a new form of feminism or just the old objectification, asks Sarah Montague, of BBC Radio 4's Today.

Twenty years ago when I was in my teens, Page Three girls seemed old fashioned. Surely it was just a matter of time before they disappeared altogether.

Not only has Page Three survived, it has been joined by almost every other page of a newspaper, including the front.

Jordan, aka Katie Price
Katie Price - aka Jordan - uses her body as a business asset
These days I find myself in petrol station queues trying to explain to my five-year-old daughter why these women haven't got any clothes on. I don't know what message she takes from it. Perhaps she'll think the only exploitation going on is of men's sexual responses.

After all, women like glamour model Jordan have made a fortune from this sort of stuff. She's become a role model for thousands of young women who no longer see the sex industry as a last refuge if they're desperate but as something to aspire to. And it doesn't seem to be just down to the money it can pay.

A few months ago, a woman from Nuts TV told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the reason thousands of young women chose to upload pictures of their breasts for free so that men could rate them on the Nuts website was because it was "empowering" to do so.

It reflects a change in society over the past ten years. I wouldn't blame the Spice Girls. I'm sure they just successfully tapped into something that was already there.

As a result of the success of feminism, women can now do exactly as men do. Not only are they doing the same jobs, they're drinking the same amount of alcohol and even treating sex in the same way. But 40 years after the Equal Pay Act, a female director in retail or business earns about 57,000 while a man in the same job earns 70,000, according to the Institute of Directors.

Spice Girls in concert
Preaching "girl power" to the converted
Ten years of girl power has coincided with the rise in what the journalist Ariel Levy has called "raunch culture" - a phrase describing how the sex industry has now become mainstream.

Perhaps no surprise that young women look at the images around them and conclude that, to be successful, they have to be sexy. They also often say that if they feel sexy, they feel confident.

The evidence is everywhere. At a competition for page three girls in Portsmouth, one entrant (wearing little more than a g-string) says we're "doing it for ourselves". She calls it a "confidence boost for us girls".

"If we get the cheers, we like ourselves even more," she says.

And that word "confidence" crops up again with young women in professional jobs I spoke to in west London. "If you're wearing smart and sort of sexy clothes, you feel more confident and empowered," says one.

Sauce for the goose...

But what is our image-obsessed society doing to teenagers? Girls struggling with their self-image are more prone to eating disorders and self-harming.

Every 10 or 15 years feminism needs to mutate and change and I think that's what groups like the Spice Girls did
Author Katherine Townsend
And the boys? If the whole point of feminism is that you can wear what you like and people won't judge you, then someone needs to tell at least one bunch of teenagers in east London, who appear to assume women want to be treated as sex objects.

"The first thing that comes to mind is she's a 'ho'," one says. "The first thing, with girls like that, I see them as like easy targets - you can get their numbers, do whatever."

That doesn't matter if that is what the woman wants, but what if it's not? More women now report that they've been raped than ever before and convictions have not kept pace.

The first Reclaim the Night march was 30 years ago when organisers said there was a one in three chance of a conviction for rape. Now it's one in 20 and that's why marches have started again.

"I was raped by my best friend. I know for a fact if I had said to any other of my male friends that that happened, they would have said, 'well you must have been asking for it in some way' and that's really scary," says one victim.


But for Katherine Townsend, columnist and author of Sleeping Around, the rebranding of women's liberation was inevitable.

Protests by the women's suffrage movement
Back when empowerment meant the right to vote
"Every 10 or 15 years feminism needs to mutate and change and I think that's what groups like the Spice Girls did. It repackaged it in a very attractive way to young girls, but I don't think they can claim to speak for everyone."

And she believes it can be empowering to be considered sexy. "I'm not saying all women should go out and sleep around. For me it was a journey."

But Natasha Walter, author of New Feminism, says that while she felt "optimistic about where women were going" during the Spice Girls' era 10 years ago, she is now concerned about how feminism is being defined.

"I think obviously it can be empowering and liberating to throw off the shackles of modesty and go out there and be sexy.

"But I think we have to remember what empowerment and liberation meant - what is it in its wider sense? Let's not settle for the narrower sense."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I thought this was a very interesting article. I would describe myself as a feminist and know how hard it is to define the term. The most surprising thing I've found when talking with my peer group of women in their late teens/early twenties is that they would shy away from describing themselves as feminists even thought they speak about empowerment. In some cases I've been told that feminism is no longer relevant, which worried me.
Beth Pearson, Nottingham

What are the women who take their clothes off being liberated from? The fear of taking their clothes off? If you're willing to take your clothes off to make me take you more seriously, you're going the wrong way about it. It strikes me that women are divided and disorganised on how to push forward with feminism. Maybe you ought to draft in a man to help you hone your message?

Note: that was a joke. Mostly.
Dave Murray, Bristol

"The first Reclaim the Night march was 30 years ago when organisers said there was a one in three chance of a conviction for rape. Now it's one in 20 and that's why marches have started again." You're not comparing like with like here. One in three was the chance of a criminal rape charge leading to a guilty verdict or plea. This has not changed significantly. One in 20 is the chance of an alleged rape reported to the police eventually leading to a guilty verdict or plea for rape. This is still too low, but is substantially 'higher' than 30 years ago.
John B, London, UK

Feeling 'sexy' surely has some evolutionary advantage. No-one can deny feeling attractive gives you confidence. Women's lib gave us the means to say 'no' to the demands on us to behave as stereotypes. What I object to is this, the fact that a generation of young women are growing up too quickly, feeling insecure and disaffected because they are being bombarded by persuasive messages from the media and pop industry which make them think that being thin, sexy and a bit dumb should be more valued than hard work, intelligence, and feeling good about yourself, however classically beautiful (or not) you are.
Cathy, Oxford, UK

I'm a 28-year-old man and I find magazines like Nuts and Zoo to be in insult to both men and women. I take offence to the notion that if you're a man under 30, all you want from life is a girl with huge boobs, football and beer. It's not only women that are being reduced to base levels by these publications.
Tom Hughes, Bristol

I don't have a problem with a woman using her body and her looks to her advantage and I do believe that there are many forms of feminism. What I'm loathe to accept is young women thinking that a body, clothes or face are enough or indeed more important than a brain and being well-balanced.
Stephanie Mackay, London, UK

Appearing in lads mags is hardly proof of girl power? The glamour market is driven by demand from men not because of the 'power' of the women taking advantage of male hormones. Becoming German chancellor or CEO of Hewlett Packard - now those are women with real girl power if you ask me.
R Woodward, Maidenhead

I fail to see how taking your clothes off and revealing yourself to people you don't even know can make you feel 'sexy'. It all just seems like attention-seeking gone wrong. Even when the emphasis is put on the woman/girl being free with herself to be able to parade about in just a tiny pair of pants, there is always going to be, in the public majority, a sense that the woman/girl involved is promiscuous or else she wouldn't be revealing herself. Whatever happened to the times when the sight of a woman's neck, or wrist was considered red hot? Are today's practises viewed as immorality or has it become something more absurd? Personally I feel more 'sexy' when I've got more clothes on, but others would say that's just me being 'unconfident' with my body image, but I'm not... perhaps I'm just a bit "old fashioned".
Philippa, Birmingham, UK

Those who consider that young women are degrading themselves by selling their sexual allure miss an important point - it's an option that men in general do not have. There are no mainstream magazines with half-naked men because the demand for them from women is not there. Perhaps the male population have some equally enticing quality though if we do I'm curious to know what it is.
Lee, London, UK

This is an odd issue, because both sides of the argument are true. If a woman dresses modestly, it is because she feels that she doesn't have to dress up to please members of the opposite sex. However, she will also be less likely to get any positive attention to her appearance, which every woman feels good about. However, if a woman dresses 'sexy', she is making the most of her body and her appearance, but also runs the risk of being labelled as a 'tart' or a 'slut' due to her appearance, and some men will see this as an excuse for attacking her. I think that women should be able to dress based on comfort alone, if they are comfortable with less, then wear less. The problem lies with those men who simply cannot control themselves!
Heather, Willenhall

This was a very good article. Very thought-provoking.
Anon, London

Empowering? What a joke! Get some clothes on and start being women again, instead of brainwashed clones who are doing exactly what men want you to do. It's truly sad that women's liberation has been undermined and co-opted by men. Yes, sorry to burst your bubble, grrrrls, but you've been duped into being more exploited than ever before.
Mark L Scott, Brit in the USA

Actually, I think you will find that women never did burn their bras. At a Miss America contest in 1968 a group of protesters brought in a sheep, crowned her as 'Miss America' then proceeded to take items such as bras and high heeled shoes and throw them into what was termed as a "Freedom Trash Can". They wanted to burn the items, however the police would not allow them to. The idea that women burnt their bras only appeared in 1992 when a journalist for the New York Post told a magazine about an article she had written regarding these women who intended to burn their bras. The magazine took it one step further and put in the headline "Bra-Burners". Many media organisations have been caught off guard by this particular incident. I just thought the BBC should know, if they didn't already!
Laura-Ann, East Anglia

Myself, I do not like all of these models thrusting their bodies around like that. I prefer a woman who is more classy and intellectual. Dress in such a manner that it leaves little to the imagination and you will attract the attention of the undesirables in the crowd. It always amuses me when girls dress with tops that are verging on a bra, then constantly berating men for looking at their breasts instead of straight into their eyes.
Stephen, Caerphilly

It's in no way empowering, and it's depressing that people think it is. It's not using talent to impress or get what you want, it's using the luck that you've been blessed with nice-looking body parts, and it perpetuates both the downward spiral of intelligent women feeling bad about themselves because they don't have pert breasts/washboard stomach/long legs, and the idea that women are objects.
Angharad Beurle-Williams, Brixton, London

We are becoming more demanding as a society, and so the list of things that women are expected to be grows ever longer. Today's feature on cosmetic surgery is a case in point - it is available, and if you are not perfect, you are expected to have surgery. Once it was clothes, now it is bodies, women's especially. We should admire beauty, but shouldn't demand it. England expects that every woman will have a good booty?
Nigel Macarthur, London, England

Hmm, I really don't think the Spice Girls did anything for feminism. They simply had a slogan "girl power" that caught on in a mad crazy world where a bunch of mediocre singers who made a few mediocre pop songs seem to be hailed as something they ain't! I find it sad that women feel the need to go around enhancing and revealing their bodies to make themselves more attractive (and by that they feel more empowered/confident - do they?). I expect, deep down, all these girls want is to be appreciated, acknowledged, feel attractive - whatever you want to call it, when really they've little else to offer. But I also expect they are the first to complain when they are treated as objects by the very people they are trying to appeal to and the last thing they want to feel like. I'd say to them, if you treat yourself this way, what else can you expect? A truly successful empowered woman is someone who is confident and sure of herself exactly how God made her and doesn't feel the need to "get it all out for the boys". Less is more in almost every case. Empowering - no. Degrading and a step backwards - yes yes yes.
Brigitte, Cambridge

Men's attitude to women aren't formed by women, they're formed by other men. If a boy's father, or older brother, or the rap star he idolises, constantly refer to women as 'ho's' and demeans them, that's how he'll grow up. Men's attitude to women has very little to do with the way girls dress, and everything to do with what his mates say. If we want attitudes towards women to change, then we have to change the way they are treated by men in pop videos and comedies.
Nona, London

The concept of liberation never took off as basically many women were quite happy to have doors opened for them, drinks bought etc so the idea was doomed from the beginning. Thatcher who promoted herself as the saviour of women actually 'sold them down the river'. She callously betrayed them for egoist, self-ambition and power, badly administered and the effects are still around. In our society, women, quite rightly, have advanced in industries often dominated by men and, compared to other countries, have freedom of speech etc and that is correct. At the end of the day there will always be differences between the sexes and I honestly think that suits the thoughts of both sexes. That surely is the way for women and men in a free civilised society. We (the sexes) are equal, end of debate.
Tim McMahon, Pennar/Wales


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