Open those legs

Deborah Cameron explains exactly what was so enraging about that disembodied legs ad the other day.

The installation consists of five large display boards arranged in a line. Mounted on each of the middle three boards is a disembodied pair of crossed female legs. They’re like the legs you see on mannequins in the hosiery sections of department stores: long, slender, and carefully positioned for aesthetic effect. They begin at the top of the thigh and end in Barbie-style feet wearing high-heeled court shoes. They are “diverse” insofar as they represent a range of skin colours, but there is no diversity in relation to age, body-size or personal style. The imaginary woman these legs belong to is clearly young, slim, and conventionally feminine. On its own the visual element of the display could easily be mistaken for a lingerie ad: it’s far from obvious what legs have to do with cervical cancer. But the connection is spelled out in the verbal message, which is split between the two outer display boards. Both parts address the viewer directly and in the imperative: on the left, “don’t keep ‘em crossed”, and on the right, “get screened instead”.

While there are many things to object to about this installation, the thing I found so shocking that it rendered me temporarily speechless was that injunction “don’t keep ’em crossed”. It’s offensive because the crossing and uncrossing of a woman’s legs is a well-worn metaphor for sexual continence or incontinence. That’s the real reason why girls are taught that it’s “ladylike” to sit with your legs crossed (and “unladylike” to sit with them apart): while this is often presented as a matter of aesthetics or good taste, what it’s really about is modesty, in the sense of chastity. By adopting a posture that completely conceals her genital area, a woman signals that she is not available for sex.

That and even more, I think. It’s about modesty/chastity but also about disgust. It’s a love/hate thing. The female genital area is a site of whoopee yay hooray but also ew ugh gross.

The flipside, of course, is that the uncrossing of a woman’s legs becomes a sign that she is open to sexual propositions. When I was growing up in the 1970s people often said, about both rape and unwanted pregnancy, was that all a woman had to do to prevent it was “keep her legs crossed”. This was a commonplace form of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, but it also had a flipside which might be called “prude-shaming”. The woman who did “keep ’em crossed” could be accused of denying men access because she was “uptight”, frigid and sexually repressed. Which is also what “don’t keep ‘em crossed/get screened instead” implies—that it’s uptightness that stops women from getting screened.

More damned if we do and damned if we don’t. That thing between the legs is desired and despised.

the NHS and cancer charities have form for this. In 2021 the health app myGP ran a bizarre online campaign suggesting young women could remind their social media followers about the importance of regular smear tests by posting a picture of the type of cat (long-haired, short-haired or hairless) that best represented the current state of their pubic hair. The cat, obviously, was code for the explicitly sexualized term “pussy”. And it’s not just cervical cancer that gets this treatment. One Twitter commenter reminded me that in 2020 the Sun newspaper, which for several decades was famous for featuring a daily topless pin-up photo on page 3, ran a campaign to encourage breast self-examination whose title and slogan was “CoppaFeel!”. And in Canada a campaign to raise awareness of ovarian cancer renamed the ovaries “ladyballs”: its slogan was “have the ladyballs to do something about it”.

Men are people; women are a collection of sex organs.

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