I THOUGHT, ‘Why do I hate my boobs? Where does it come from?’ These were the questions that turned chick-lit author Lucy-Anne Holmes into a feminist campaigner.
Nicole, 21, from Bournemouth, is wearing a smile and a pair of tiny white shorts – nothing else, bar a rather nice necklace – as she displays her breasts in one of the nation’s top-selling newspapers. She was one of last week’s Page 3 girls, and not many years older than some of the youngsters mentioned on the front page of the Sun in relation to the sexual assault allegations against William Roache, Dave Lee Travis and Rolf Harris.
There’s a world of difference between an alleged sex attack and a woman choosing to be photographed topless, but those who would like to see the end of Page 3 argue that images of semi-naked women in a newspaper reinforce sexist attitudes, sexual harassment, and abuse and violence towards women. The Sun is the nation’s biggest-selling newspaper, with a daily circulation of 2,281,301 and a readership of 6,707,000, so even if we don’t buy it, we’re seeing Page 3 on buses, in restaurants and on the streets every day.
Started by novelist Lucy-Anne Holmes in the summer of 2012, the No More Page 3 campaign is a petition appealing to David Dinsmore, the Glaswegian editor of the Sun newspaper, to stop showing naked women on Page 3. It now has 132,925 supporters (the figure is climbing daily) and backing from unions, including Unison, the Girl Guides, the British Youth Council, the Royal College of Nursing and more than 20 universities, which have banned the paper on their campuses. There are celebrities such as Russell Brand, who joined last week, backing the campaign, and even the Sun’s own columnist Karren Brady. Green MP Caroline Lucas was rebuked for wearing a “No More Page 3” T-shirt during a debate in the House of Commons, and the Scottish Parliament held a debate on the issue in November, led by Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour MSP for Dumbarton, who called for the editor of the Scottish edition of the Sun, Gordon Smart, to “take his paper into the 21st century by consigning Page 3 to the dustbin of history”.
It’s not that Holmes is a humourless harridan who blanches at the mention of sex. Far from it, she’s a writer of romantic comedies whose characters display a very healthy interest in the subject, and Holmes also used to write a popular blog on her personal life, detailing when and how she was getting her kicks. She grew up in a Sun-reading household in Buckinghamshire and, she stresses, isn’t calling for a ban or censorship – she is asking that the Sun voluntarily stops publishing Page 3.
“I was brought up with the Sun and would always look at it when I was young. It has bright pictures of pop stars and my brother always said it’s the best paper for sport. For lots of people the Sun has always been there and they don’t think about it. But it has an effect. I just took it for granted that I was ashamed of my breasts. They arrived at the age of 11 and people around me were commenting on the breasts on Page 3. Men that I looked up to were looking at that newspaper, and for an 11-year-old that was a big deal. Mine didn’t look like that. I carried this shame with me, but you don’t think about it till you get older and wonder, ‘Why do I hate my boobs?’”
Pretty young Nicole from Bournemouth could have walked out of the pages of one of Holmes’ romantic comedies; except that the novelist has yet to write a book with a Page 3 model as the central protagonist. Feisty, funny and in charge of their own sexuality, her heroines appeal to the Caitlin Moran-reading, Lena Dunham’s Girls-watching generation.
“Would I have a glamour model in one of my books? I don’t know. I haven’t so far,” she says as she makes plans to travel from her Sussex home to Dundee for the Scottish Sexpression conference, where she has been invited to talk about the No More Page 3 campaign. In the same week she’ll celebrate the publication of her fourth romantic comedy novel, Just A Girl, Standing In Front Of A Boy.
“I wrote the latest one before I started the campaign, but you can tell I was headed that way,” she says.
What about an out-and-out feminist as a character then?
“The worrying thing is that you can make a character far too feminist, if I can put it that way. You can’t assume you know what people want and tailor it to that. You just create something true to you, then there’s more chance people will relate.”
So far people have related to Holmes. Her first book, 50 Ways To Find A Lover, sparked a bidding war, was nominated for the Romantic Comedy of the Year Award and optioned twice. She followed it up with The (Im)Perfect Girlfriend, Unlike A Virgin and her latest novel, which follows the adventures of one Jenny Taylor, aka Fanny.
Holmes, who has a degree in English literature, started her writing career when she was working as an actress in London and blogging about her love life. Fuelled by white wine she started her blog, A Spinster’s Quest, as she approached her 30th birthday, and attracted an audience of men and women, as well as a literary agent.
“I started writing a blog about my personal experiences and got interest from an agent and publisher. When I went to meet them they said I should write a novel. So I started one, drawing on my own experiences. Then I had a light-bulb moment when I realised that you don’t have to have had all of these experiences to write books,” she says.
“Writing my blog about relationships and sex, it was about me shaping the sex I was having and wanting to be confident in that area. I thought, ‘Why do I hate my boobs? Where does it come from?’ I’m a hippy and don’t hate at all, I’m all peace and love. So why have I always lumped hate on this part of my body? I felt sad for the young girl I was, all the shame and wanting surgery.”
While researching her blog, Holmes became more aware of online porn and had something of an awakening in terms of how women are portrayed.
“I was on my own one day and put ‘beautiful sex’ into a search engine.”
Did you? Why?
“Well, I was on my own and… Oh dear, my publisher’s not going to let me do another interview after this…”
Were you having some “me time”, I ask.
“Yes, and if you’re single and looking for something that represented me and my sexuality… Anyway, I typed in ‘great sex’ and ‘good sex’ and everything led back to sites where the girls were very young or having aggression expressed against them. I started to worry about their safety and turned it off. I thought: ‘I’m a woman and how do I feel about having my sex represented like this?’ So I started writing about that.”
Holmes’ blog turned into a quest for a lover, which was successful in that she found a partner – although that relationship is now over.
“I don’t really know what my relationship status is now. Erm, I’m seeing someone… I’m working on it,” she says, laughing.
Holmes is also increasingly working on the snowballing No More Page 3 campaign, which she started after turning to the paper for sporting news during the Olympic Games in 2012 and being crestfallen at what she saw. Despite women’s massive participation in sport, it only makes up 5 per cent of sports coverage overall. This is a fact not lost on Scottish mountain biker Lee Craigie, the British national champion, who will be cycling in Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games, and can now train full-time thanks to being sponsored through crowd-funding by the No More Page 3 campaign.
“No More Page 3 is really important to show positive role models for young women and an alternative to getting your boobs out to get attention,” says the 25-year-old.
“I have been asked to pose glamorously and take my helmet off and shake my hair out, but I just say: no, this is what I look like on a bike. A photo of me on Page 3, fully clothed, with my Cannondale Flash bike would be much more eye candy for boys than my boobs,” says Craigie.
The campaign is also fundraising to kit out Cheltenham Town Ladies Football Club and supports Nottingham Forest Ladies Football Club. The sports link is apposite.
“I started the campaign and petition after buying a copy of the Sun during the Olympics,” says Holmes. “Everyone was buoyed up and I was seeing all these women on the podiums. Jessica Ennis had just won gold and on Page 3 they did put extra coverage of the Olympics, but on page 13 there was a massive image of a young woman showing her breasts to men, much bigger than anything of Jessica Ennis. What does that say about society? For me, it’s saying it’s a man’s world,” says the 37-year-old.
Holmes’s disappointment was the catalyst for her petition, which became a campaign with its own website, declaring “Boobs aren’t news”, in its Sun-style banner and logo.
“It’s hard for some men to understand the impact of Page 3 because no part of the male body has been sexualised in that way. One of the things that gets said is ‘you’re just jealous’, and I love that and say, if we had all seen a picture of a scrotum in a newspaper everyday, maybe shaved, how would men feel? Show us the scrotum pics! If they had to look at that every day, men would start worrying about that part of their body, that it didn’t look right. How would they feel if they had to walk down the street with women shouting at them, ‘Show us your balls’?”
Holmes isn’t a serial campaigner and wasn’t someone who was comfortable with the word feminism in her youth. Labour MP Clare Short’s 1980s campaign in the House of Commons for legislation against Page 3 and topless models in the tabloids, and the vilification she endured, weren’t particularly on her radar.
“In the past feminism has sounded academic. It was for people talking on Newsnight, and I wasn’t comfortable in the rhetoric, wasn’t comfortable talking about it. When I was writing my blog, I was writing about feminism, but I didn’t know it was feminism at the time. I wasn’t schooled in feminist theory and had probably absorbed a negative view of it because the media has done such a hatchet job.
“But with things like the Everyday Sexism project, it’s easy to talk about your experiences, and it’s clear, so that’s powerful. A lot of people might not have felt comfortable using the term feminism, but they will talk about sexism because we all know it when we see it. I don’t want to sound patronising, because I’m talking about myself here. But now I’m proud to call myself a feminist because it’s what has given us the everyday rights we have.”
Whether they call themselves feminists or not, plenty of people – male and female – are backing the campaign, and because it’s online, it’s accessible to those who may not have the urge to march, argue or debate.
“We have worked with MPs and seen some amazing debates – the one in the Scottish Parliament was brilliant. Jackie Baillie was awesome. Stella Creasy has been terrific too, but you don’t have to be in a party or a union. It’s spreading because it’s online. We have created a platform where people can speak out. One that will get bigger and bigger.”
“I think we’ll see a change this year. They’ve dropped Page 3 from the Irish Sun and it seems to be going down to four days a week in the UK. They have to reinvent it. At weekends now they use a picture of a female soap star bending over instead, so it’s a step in the right direction.
“Whatever you think about it, it’s part of their brand, along with sport and punchy headlines. But if we want to see equality, and they don’t want to have to constantly justify the unjustifiable, then we can’t have naked pictures of women in a newspaper in 2014.”
In terms of her writing, Holmes has another two ideas for romantic comedies, a non-fiction book on feminism and female sexuality, and also wants to keep her hand in at acting. With one of her rom-coms already optioned, there’s every chance of her fiction finding its way into film or TV.
But Holmes is cautious. “Other people get more excited than I do about that, because I have worked in acting and have friends in production. I know how many things have to happen until it goes into rehearsal,” she says.
If the film versions ever happen, I suggest Holmes might gain a wider audience for her work. The “chick-lit” label she is given may see off some of the readers who accessed her blog. She acknowledges the dangers of being pigeon-holed.
“When I got a book deal it was so exciting, but when I saw the cover I thought it was very much more geared to women. My cover idea had been a clapped-out Ford Fiesta with a couple in it. But this was women with big hair and clothes and I thought: oh, this is how I’m being marketed, and it shocked me,” she says.
“People are disparaging and snobbish about chick-lit, but there’s a chick-lit community that is so welcoming. It’s like a party and I want to be at it. Where would you place One Day, which was written by a man? Is it chick-lit? I would like chick-lit to be braver in terms of covers, though – I think it could hold that. And the titles maybe. I had my own title for Just A Girl, Standing In Front Of A Boy, but they didn’t use it,” she says wistfully.
Why not? What was it?
“The Smiling Fanny Manifesto.”
• Just A Girl, Standing In Front Of A Boy by Lucy-Anne Holmes is out on Thursday, published by Little Brown, Sphere, priced £6.99.
• Scottish Sexpression Conference, 1-2 February, Dundee Medical School, tickets £5, £10 and £16 (sexpression.org.uk)
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