The female Full Monty was brave, but do women always have to strip?

The Real Full Monty TV show at Sheffield City Hall on 29 March 2018.
The Real Full Monty TV show at Sheffield City Hall on 29 March 2018. Photograph: James Gourley/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

The female version of television’s The Real Full Monty featured celebrities engaged in a tastefully executed charity striptease to raise awareness about breast cancer. The women, including Coleen Nolan, Victoria Derbyshire, Michelle Heaton, Ruth Madoc, among others, had either survived breast cancer, or been in some way affected by it, and I don’t have a single criticism of any of them. However, this doesn’t negate the wider point – that, arguably, unlike men, women can’t afford to get casually naked for a good cause.

It doesn’t matter that there was a male version of the same stunt for the simple reason that the world’s filter is not the same for both sexes. The Full Monty wasn’t even really about stripping – it was about the effect of long-term unemployment on the male psyche. This female striptease was also about so much more.

For some of the women, the disease had assaulted their sense of femininity, sexuality and very self to the point that stripping empowered them. I appreciate that. However, this doesn’t alter the fact that the message a female charity striptease sends out is complicated and unhelpful.

This is about how dangerous it is for women to collude in their own sexual objectification, even if it’s for a good cause. How a female striptease carries a historical-cum-sociopolitical viral load that the male version cannot match. When women’s bodies have always been used – routinely, quasi-industrially – to sell everything from cars to shampoo to films, it goes beyond a flippant “sex sells” to a different message. Which is, “women are only good for selling sex”, with the postscript “and when they’re no longer good for that, they’re good for nothing”. The only way for women to fight back is to refuse to go along with it, any of it, for any reason – even for a fun charity stunt.

These days, men are also increasingly feeling pressurised by the fiction of perfection that is the Body Beautiful, leading to even young boys being made to feel inferior. This is grotesque – women don’t gain from men also feeling bad about themselves. Men suffering in a similar way doesn’t help the cause of female equality. At the same time, men still have some way to go before their entire value is predicated on being visual and/or sexual.

Maybe this is what women have to realise – what they’re always up against. Automatically. Even if the intention is to take society’s systemic sexism and chauvinism, and subvert and exploit it, what does this really amount to – except women putting their heads into the lion’s mouth? Perhaps it’s just time to accept that – historically, contextually, culturally, every damn way – a woman removing her clothes is always going to play totally differently to a man doing the exact same thing. So I understand why The Real Full Monty women stripped and I applaud their good intentions and their courage. I just wish they’d found another way.

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist