Art / Reviews

HUNGER: Jo Spence and the F-word


The theme of Hunger Magazine’s latest bi-annual tome is, you guessed it: women. Not “strong women”, Eva Wiseman tells us in her brilliant contribution, but women.

The aim should be that the phrase “strong woman” becomes a tautology – as unnecessary a description as “frozen ice”. The aim should be that strength is seen as a feminine trait.

I couldn’t agree more. And with my twitter-feed consistently full of the abuses of women mediated by the wonderful Everyday Sexism Project, Hunger’s positive projection of women and feminism couldn’t come at a better time.

Jo SpenceIn her article, Wiseman insightfully explores how the term “strong woman” is preferred over “feminism”: it avoids confronting all those awkward politics. It nicely steps around the inevitable awkwardness that I am so often faced with when I tell people, unashamedly, that yes, I am a feminist. That F-word gets a hell of a lot more eye-rolls and exasperated sighs.

But a woman you certainly can’t avoid is Jo Spence. In another of this volume’s articles, Spence is shown baring her breasts scarred from cancer treatment, staring you right in the face. Unlike the sexualised photo-shoots of so many “strong female” celebrities, Jo Spence claims her body.

And yet… This is so much more than feminism. A survivor of breast cancer, Spence died of leukaemia in 1992 but continued to work through her own bodily decline. Not accepting her illness as a stigma, Spence’s photography relentlessly explores the body as a focus in itself. It forces you to see, to look, and in its own way to change the often voyeuristic gaze of nude photography to one that presents the body as fact. It simply, emphatically says: “this is me“.

And this powerful statement about the body is in many ways so essential to our views of gender identity today. “Gender identity” doesn’t fit into the simple categories so often prescribed by society, and how I identify myself is certainly not defined by my body. Once people understand that, society will become a much more equal place, both for women and men.

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