When Angela Rayner told the FT about her ‘boob job’, she was telling the rightwing press to bring it on | Zoe Williams

No disclosure goes unpunished by the tabloids if you are a Labour politician - and the typical defence is to say nothing. The deputy leader has a different strategy

Angela Rayner says she had a “boob job” when she was 30 because her breasts looked like “two boiled eggs in socks”, or “basset hound ears”. There’s a lot to chew on here: are those visual images better or worse than my previous favourite: “sideways bananas in a Waitrose bag”? And what conversational conditions could produce this disclosure, in an interview with the Financial Times?

On the subject of cosmetic surgery, I am agnostic. I just will not have one more conversation about whether internalising social expectations of the female body-shape is empowerment or enslavement. “Do what thou wilt” is the whole of my law, at least with regards to thine own body. On the subject of the media, however, I have opinions – more than opinions, dark prognostications. That the minute that was published in the FT, it would appear in the tabloids. The initial reporting would be played colourless and straight, with the odd marmalade-dropper adjective (“remarkably candid,” say). The drive-by assassination attempts will come later, and they’ll never, ever stop. One day, she’ll crop up in some whither-equality diatribe, “when even supposed ‘feminists’ must mutilate themselves without wondering why”; the next, it’ll be a hit job on her vanity, or her financial acuity, or her out-of-touchness.

For Labour politicians, no disclosure goes unpunished by the tabloid media. Their typical defence mechanism is to disclose nothing, which is then leveraged into the charge that they’re boring. And that’s fair: it is quite boring when you won’t divulge anything. Seeking election to public office, it is more than boring: you’re trying to sell yourself to the public without telling them who you are, like the proverbial guy with a cache of knock-off watches who won’t open his coat.

Typically, when a politician won’t show him or herself, and there’s a burning appetite to pick them apart for faults, newspapers just find photos of them eating. It’s a weirdly effective way to discredit a person; I thought about it a lot in the early 10s, around the time of the Tumblr account “women who eat on tubes”. It was clearly a proto-misogynist playground, a dark corner of the internet where men held women in contempt, just because we’re sometimes hungry. But I puzzled over it for ages: why was it debasing to be caught eating on a tube? It’s just a Twirl!

Ed Miliband and the bacon sandwich clarified things a bit. We’ll leave to some other time the question of whether or not the ruinous obsession with a man eating a portable breakfast bap had antisemitic overtones. It was enough just to see him with his mouth full to strip him of his statesmanship. As soon as a person is chewing, all nobler activities – giving a great speech, riding a horse into battle – are gated off by the imagination. They’re just another hungry mammal.

The subsequent Labour leader was wronged in ways that you couldn’t even list without sounding crackers, and the current incumbent is not an eating-on-the-hoof kind of man. Starmer, you’ll recall, was pilloried anyway for eating a curry during a lockdown, which the Daily Mail ran a photo of. On closer inspection, the picture was so old that it predated the pandemic. How could we tell? It had Frank Dobson in it, who died in 2019. The leader of the opposition’s generally unreactive team did complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation about this, and received a reply that was, in precis, “That’s just what they’re like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”

Here is an exhaustive raft of methods Labour leaders have used to deal with the worst excesses of the tabloids this century: placate them with weird spiteful policies they didn’t even ask for (Blair); appeal to their non-existent better natures (Brown); ignore them and hope they’ll go away (Miliband); point out their bias in a way that, infuriatingly, makes you sound like a crank (Corbyn); appeal to a higher authority (Starmer). Angela Rayner is taking a different approach, something more like: “Bring it on, then, mofos. Do your worst.” I think it might work; nothing else does.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Angela Rayner called Tory ministers ‘scum’ – and now they’re weaponising it | Zoe Williams
It is entirely un-newsworthy for people on opposing sides to dislike one another. But that doesn’t stop the language of fake hurt and victimhood being ceaselessly deployed

Zoe Williams

27, Sep, 2021 @1:39 PM

Article image
The US may not share Britain’s obsession with class – but it hates women every bit as much | Arwa Mahdawi
Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have an unpleasant amount in common with Angela Rayner, writes Arwa Mahdawi. Female politicians are routinely belittled on both sides of the Atlantic

Arwa Mahdawi

27, Apr, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Labia liberation! The movement to end vulva anxiety for good
Women have long been taught to be ashamed of their vulvas, with increasing numbers turning to cosmetic surgery in pursuit of genital ‘perfection’. But a new generation is fighting back

Zoe Williams

13, Sep, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Why has Britain fallen in love with Botox? There is only one way to find out ...
Increasing numbers of people are using the cosmetic treatment and they are happy to admit it. But what does it feel like to freeze your forehead, does anyone notice – and can it change how you feel about yourself?

Zoe Williams

28, Sep, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Caroline Hirons, outspoken queen of skincare: ‘I’m not so fragile that I care what you think about me’
One of the most powerful people in the beauty industry, she is reportedly able to make or break a new product. She discusses self-confidence, online abuse – and daring to criticise Gwyneth Paltrow

Emine Saner

14, Jun, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Zahra Joya: the Afghan reporter who fled the Taliban – and kept telling the truth about women
As a child in Afghanistan, she pretended to be a boy in order to get an education, before starting her own women’s news agency. Now living in Britain, her fight continues

Annie Kelly

22, Sep, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
What the Daily Mail means when it talks about May and Sturgeon’s ‘pins’
The language used in the newspaper’s coverage of the two most powerful politicians in the UK is a by-numbers attempt to reduce women to objects

Zoe Williams

28, Mar, 2017 @1:33 PM

Article image
After Noel Clarke: can the UK film and TV industry bring an end to on-set bullying?
For many years, the actor and director’s behaviour was seemingly unchallenged. But there are hopes that the recent claims against him could help spur positive change

Sirin Kale, Amelia Gentleman and Lucy Osborne

27, May, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The schoolday I’ll never forget: ‘We were told about periods – and I wanted to disappear’
Were any of us really ready for the news that we would bleed each month? Only one reaction made sense. Destroy all the sanitary towels

Chitra Ramaswamy

31, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘I could not get out of Britain fast enough’: Amanda de Cadenet on tabloid bullies, teenage fame and making it in the US
She was dubbed ‘the wild child’ in the UK when she presented The Word in the early 90s – and left scarred by the experience. After fleeing across the Atlantic, she reinvented herself, as a feminist activist, photographer, talkshow host and now a podcaster

Hadley Freeman

24, Aug, 2022 @5:00 AM