Counting 56 pictures of women in their underwear on a single escalator at Oxford Circus station is one of the reasons Sara Pascoe felt she had to write a book.
The Dagenham-born comedian, known for appearances on W1A, Twenty Twelve, The Thick Of It and panel shows like Mock The Week and QI, thinks media and advertising give too much precedence to women with no clothes on.
“I think it’s the number, and I think it’s the amount of social space that’s taken up with women in their underwear, and naked,” she tells The Huffington Post UK.
“And it’s not because those women aren’t beautiful, it’s not just like ‘Oh, I’m jealous because I don’t have that kind of bottom’. It’s because when a woman is bombarded with those kinds of images all day, she is being given very severe messages about what women are supposed to look like and what she is supposed to be doing.”
Noticing the parade of nearly-nude bodies on a single escalator was “too much”, she writes in her first book, Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body.
It’s hardly a new complaint, but Pascoe, 34, has a refreshingly practical approach, using detailed biological information about women’s bodies, their evolution and how this affects their lives, tied together with frank stories from her own.
Despite only studying science to GSCE, she’s delved into learning about the complex workings of female genitals, breasts and brains (she proudly tells me that female birds have ‘labryinth’ vaginas.)
“Few comedians’ books can lay claim to being important; but Sara Pascoe’s debut, Animal, falls firmly into that category,” writes one reviewer.
She’s in good company, joining the likes of Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham as one of the growing number of female authors writing frankly about being a woman. “I think it’s a generational thing,” she muses. “All of the women who are writing these books are the daughters of women who went through feminism in the 60s and 70s.
“I think we were brought up to believe we could do absolutely anything, and then I think we got to adolescence and into the world of work, and found out that actually, hang on, we’re doing a lot of talking about this but there’s lots of restrictions still. Like the wage gap, or the fact that women who have children aren’t accommodated properly with work, or paying for childcare, and the way women are depicted in the media and advertising, so actually there are these huge problems. [We’ve been told] that this wasn’t going to be a problem, and it’s still going on.”
She is against censoring the media when it comes to sexist images and stories, and believes in self-policing. “The media is made up of individuals. I write articles, you write articles. We just check ourselves. How did I describe a woman in a thing? Am I being sisterly? Am I being really harsh on someone, am I choosing the correct target? No-one wants to be policed or censored so we have to do it to ourselves.
“Especially people who create work for young people. I think sometimes there might be decisions that are less business-minded and more community minded.”
But what of some tabloid newspapers, whose views Guardian-reading Pascoe wouldn’t agree with? “In that case it would be the consumers that would have to change,” she says firmly. “So I guess sometimes we’d have to boycott.
“If my regular newspaper is the Daily Mail, and I really enjoy it but sometime when I’m unhappy about the picture they’ve got on the front cover, I guess I would avoid the paper on those days, or I would email them and say ‘Hey, It make me feel this way, I’m a consumer.’”
“I don’t read the Daily Mail, but I would if I did,” she adds hastily.
She’s become a serial campaigner to media and advertisers, calling them out when she’s not impressed. “I’ve really got into little emails, and Twitter now – you can do it so often – you can show your dissent. You say, ‘I like you for these reasons, you lose my business for that reason.’”
Pascoe supported the campaign from groups like No More Page 3 for The Sun to drop semi-nude models, which it finally did in January 2015, and has even used it as material for her live comedy shows.
“We are the only country in the world that has a page three,” she says. “The year before last, when I was in Australia, and I was doing stand-up about page 3 no-one understood. As you described it, they would laugh. I’d say, ‘In one of our national papers, every day, there is a naked woman.’ They would just laugh like that’s ridiculous.”
“It’s really interesting because of the different places that people now get pornography in culture. Things that 10 or 20 years ago would have been thought to be extreme are now so seaside postcard. [The idea of a page 3 girl] is almost too bland, when it used to be this real invasion of domesticity.”
Pascoe’s stand-up had always tackled bodies and sexism, but she felt unsatisfied. “I had been thinking about certain things in terms of female sexuality, or how I felt about my body or aging or having children, and I was thinking about them in small bite-sized chunks for stand-up.
“And then I realised that sometimes there’s something quite limiting about having to find a funny angle when you can’t talk about something. And I really, really love reading. So I kind of had the idea of writing a really, really, really light-hearted science book. Rather than writing just a feminism book I would have some science in there as well but it would be very accessible.”
Her book is the product of her curiosity, rather than aiming to solve the problem: “I think it’s being part of a discussion about it. I think that female sexuality feeds back into all our other roles in society, including being a parent, or being a politician, or being a CEO of a company. So our confidence and our happiness and our ability to say no and ability to be in control of whether we are sexy or not, and whether we think that what we look like is more important than anything else.
“There’s lots and lots of problems. But it’s not trying to answer them equivocally, it’s trying to work out where they’ve come from.”
A comedian writing a ‘serious’ book could be a target for criticism, but she’s seen no backlash so far. “You don’t want a scientist to think ‘oh, it’s really irresponsible of you.’ So I try to be really careful to not give definitive answers.
“Because I’m not scientist, my opinion either way doesn’t actually matter. So if I have an instinct that we do something because of pheromones, I might then read something that said pheromones haven’t been scientifically proven. I try in the book to always say that other people say these things, and if you want to find out more go and read studies.”
Pascoe is charmingly blunt, speaking quickly in a stream-of-consciousness. Publishing a book is a bit anticlimactic, she says, because nothing actually happens once it’s out there.
Pascoe believes we live in a patriarchy, but to her it’s largely a state of ignorance rather than a conspiracy. Most young men have also been told that gender equality has been ‘solved’, she believes, which is part of the problem. “I think it’s very difficult to see something that’s outside of yourself. One thing that’s very interesting with doing a job that’s very male-dominated, is how some men can clearly see [gender issues] and other men can’t. They think the system’s very fair, or they say that ‘Oh women don’t do that because they aren’t good at this thing, or they’ve not strong enough.’
“Patriarchy is this kind of catch-all word, but I wonder sometimes if that’s really what the problem is and how we improve it and how we increase empathy, so that a man doesn’t say you just have to work really hard like I worked hard, and [success] is there for everyone.’ We need to encourage them to see someone else’s experience, or the limitations for them.”
“I think revolutions happen really, really, really slowly,” she says, “and I think that’s what’s happening at the moment – women are redefining their role in the world and they are doing it generation upon generation, and as individuals and as a group.
“It’s not that we should be running the world, but we should be making sure that when a girl is born, that there aren’t restrictions in her way that are going to stop her getting to whatever she wants to achieve.”
It makes complete biological sense that women’s bodies are more scrutinised than men’s, she argues. “Because of children, children our body shape and our fertility are much more important than a man’s.”
Women – and men – don’t know enough about their bodies, she thinks. Understanding our own biology can make us happy and also lead to us “forgiving ourselves, for things like having desire, either for inappropriate people or the right people. Understanding yourself as an animal and then forgiving yourself for certain things can make people happier.”
Pascoe has never experienced sexism in comedy – perhaps because it’s male-dominated so there’s no role for women to conform to. “If I wanted to do a GQ photoshoot two years ago, and gone to the gym and bought some sexy underwear, I could have done that. And in the same way, I’ve never had anyone go ‘You’ve got to wear a short skirt,’ when I turn up to Mock the Week.”
She wants the media to better represent the spectrum of sexualities. “So they’re not just always talking about straight people in two-person, monogamous relationships. [They should cover] open relationships and polygamy, and also much more acknowledgement that so many people are gay. That so many people don’t have heterosexual urges.”
The media isn’t the only guilty party, she adds: women are often guilty of attacking other women who don’t fit in with their idea of modern feminism. “So things like Kim Kardashian, when she did a naked photograph on Instagram or Twitter and then Chloe Moretz was telling her that she was an example to women.
“I think it’s really tempting to police other women, because you feel like they are letting down your cause, [but] it’s never them.
“If you’re angry at something, it’s probably other parts of the media, or the structure of the media of the fact that a woman with her clothes off is like to get more attention than a woman who has, say, released a book.”
Women need to support women they disagree with, she reasons, “because they are still trying for their own reasons, just like you are.”
She admires the young women who she sees as already part of this supportive movement. “What I so admire about teenage girls is they are actually so sure of their own minds, they are absolutely adamant and moralistic. I guess the important thing is to not let anyone take that away from you, to try and keep that as much as can in your life.
“It’s alright to be angry, it’s alright to be rude, it’s alright to be wrong, it’s alright to change your mind based on your information, but you don’t ever be scared of talking about it.”
Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe is out now.
Sara Pascoe is on tour with ‘Animal’, May 6 to July 2, 2016