Five years on – why Natasha Walter’s ‘Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism’ is still one of the most prevalent feminist writings of the 21st Century

Photograph: Sarah Lee

So there’s a glamour model contest. All women can enter. To decide on a winner, the women must strip, pose sexually and suggestively on a bed. The men (and some women) in the audience show their preference in women by cheering or booing. A male DJ decides which woman has received the biggest cheers.

Surprisingly, this scene comes from in a club named ‘Mayhem’ in Southend-on-Sea in the spring of 2007.

This is how Natasha Walter starts ‘Babes’, the first chapter in her gripping, well-written exploration of how women are affected by a new wave of sexism – riddled with pornography, sexualisation and gender stereotyping. Through personal accounts and thorough research, Walter throws us into the perspective of young girls and their experiences of hypersexualisation. She explains how vastly her opinions have changed since her first book, The New Feminism, which encourages the rebellious woman, labelled as being ‘sexually liberated’. In this book Walter realises ‘liberating’ acts such as dancing at a strip club is actually exploitative and shouldn’t be embraced.

Walter writes about the conditioning of young girls to become living dolls: from a young age, girls are influenced to look after wriggling, crying, even excreting toy babies, to collect Bratz dolls, Barbie dolls and to take an interest in makeup and beauty. Walter explains that this conditioning from an early age encourages girls to dress a certain way and to criticise their own appearance, with the inevitable goal of finding a man and being a mother to another baby you can dress up. This is not a new concept – it echoes Simone de Beauvoir’s writing. But, it is still worth writing about because nothing is changing – girl’s toys are becoming more glittery, more pink, and are turning more little girls into sparkling, fuchsia, passive princesses.

There is a chapter entitled ‘Pornography’, in which Walter explores eroticism’s affect on both men and women. She writes about one young man who has an inability to have close relationships with women, due to his obsession with erotic materials. She explains the dangers which pornography exposes young men to. She also examines its affect on women’s lives – how pornography has ruined sexual relationships and caused men to treat women like sexual objects rather than intimate partners.

Walter also explores the gender stereotyping of children from a young age; girls are seen as passive whilst boys are seen as the active, aggressive gender. Walter explores real-life examples of parents calling out their young girls for behaving aggressively, but simply saying ‘boys will be boys’ when boys do similar things.

This personal focus on how over-sexualisation and new waves of sexism affect women is often criticised, but in Walter’s case, it works. Whether you call yourself a feminist or you believe sexism isn’t even an issue anymore, this carefully researched book will remind you why feminism still exists.

By Abi Lofthouse