why i don’t write about body image (yellow novelty print & red leopard)

I

I’ve always found the mainstream media fairly easy to ignore. I never internalized images of women smoother and slimmer than I. They weren’t personal, you know? I understood implicitly that they were just doing their thing, or trying to sell me something. That they weren’t targeting me from on high. What did needle at me was their counterpoint. “Love your body” rhetoric was much more pointed. “Hey you. You with the body. Did you know everyone hates it? Did you know that our entire society wants you to fail?”

II IV

Until then, it had never occurred to me to construe slender women in advertisements as an attack on my self-image. Without such well-meaning but accidentally damning reminders, I might never have learned insecurity. Without Upworthy, without Dove, without “love yourself” plastered on mirrors and across sidewalks, I might not have figured out that women were supposed to hate ourselves.

I know they mean well. I really, really do. I know there are many young women need help ascending from self-hatred. But I’m not sure maintaining their bodies as public property is the best way to do that. To a shy girl convinced everyone is gawking at her, there’s not much of a line between “everyone thinks you’re ugly” and “everyone thinks you’re beautiful”. The subtext remains: “everyone has an opinion about your body and feels entitled to share it with you.” How about “it doesn’t matter what everyone thinks, because it’s your body, not theirs”?

VII

Fixation on beauty is no different, really, from fixation on ugliness. It still turns you inward. It still narrows your world to the scope of your own body. It bothers me, deeply, that such cloying affirmations pass for “women’s news” (seriously, go to any woman-centric news source), while men’s news wins the dignity of being just news. A man’s world is endless, but a woman’s must be narrowed to the breadth of her form. A woman must know how beautiful she is, how choice and rare, before she can hope to function in the world. A woman is nothing unless she is beautiful. I realize I’m building quite a tinfoil hat here, but I can’t be the only one to notice that so much mainstream feminist rhetoric replicates the exact structures it’s trying to tear down.

VI V

It’s not that I don’t believe in beauty. If you’re reading this blog, that should be self-evident. I want to paint my face, lace my corsets, and light the fuck up. I WANT to be beautiful. Not everybody does. For every woman who needs the boost of Upworthy or “All About That Bass”, there’s another who prefers to conceal. Who would rather escape public scrutiny. A gaze is a gaze, no matter how complimentary. Running body commentary sticks with you, no matter its angle. When I was ten, I didn’t make the distinction. I internalized, instead, that everyone was staring at me whether I wanted it or not. I grew up to be someone who does want it, but that’s beside the point.

X

XI IX

I don’t like hearing “everyone is beautiful” because beauty isn’t mandatory. Because whether or not I feel beautiful is no one’s business but mine and those from whom I choose to seek affirmation. Neither beauty nor ugliness is a public commodity. I don’t want to move through the world, through the culture, through the blogosphere constantly reminded that my body is under scrutiny.

We don’t say “everyone can run a 4-minute mile” or “everyone has a rich, harmonious singing voice.” We acknowledge that virtues are distributed differently, that it’s not a value judgment on those who lack them, and move on. Beauty is no different. It’s one asset of many, not something inherent to womanhood. It’s part of you, but it isn’t you, and I think those who equate body image with self image would do well to remember that.

XII XIII

subjectified

7days

Not gonna brag (jk I’m totally gonna brag), but my letter to the editor got into the Seven Days today! Let the flame war commence. (To clear up the name confusion once and for all: Sierra is my first name. Skye is my middle name. I respond equally to either, but I find that Skye rolls easier off the tongue, so I use it more often on the internet.)

Now, before I pick up my mic, let me acknowledge that I do understand why people are sick of certain kinds of images. It does grate on me, artistically speaking, to see the same concepts over and over. We do need more variety, both in types of women and in the ways they are depicted. THAT SAID. The way we as a culture talk about making those changes throws many, many women under the proverbial bus.

VI

Here I am being hot – and totally subjectified – at the beach!

~

We typically designate as “objectifying” those images in which a woman displays a particular, though inexact, amount of skin. That, far too often, goes unquestioned. Are we not responsible for this assumption? Are we not beholden to examine where it comes from? I can’t say for sure, but I’ve got a damn good guess. We’ve grown up in a culture that shames and vilifies overt sexuality. We speak of “pleasures of the flesh” as though they were divorced from, lesser than, pleasures of the whole self. And I see this rhetoric creeping into even the most progressive statements. It’s rare to witness discussion on objectification, particularly women’s objectification, go more than skin deep. Forget that there are many ways to be objectified, umpteen ways to have one’s agency diminished: the end-all of whether a woman is subject or object lies in the amount of skin she’s showing and how sexualized that skin happens to be.

V

VIII

What makes a nude shoot inherently more objectifying than a clothed one? You could argue the opposite: the clothed woman is but an object to display the artistry of the garments or the photographer’s technique. Instead, our collective minds jump right to “exposed flesh = object”. Maybe the thread of puritanical thought runs deeper than we’d like to admit.

XI IX

And therein lies what chafes me. Why do we assume that the solution to objectification is to stop depicting sexualized women? How is that anything but victim-blaming? “If you don’t want to be seen as an object, you should stop dressing like one.” Fuck that and fuck you. It’s not my problem that American culture heaps such baggage on my body. It’s not my responsibility to tiptoe around people who can’t affirm my humanity. I will wear what I please and photograph myself in whatever lecherous poses I desire. If you think that makes me an object, if it prohibits you from treating me with respect, then god help you. That is one hundred percent your problem. Respectability politics in a nutshell.

III

XIII

It’s not about whether the woman is naked or clothed, sexualized or not. It’s not even about whether she’s submissive or dominant. It’s about whether she’s treated well, compensated fairly, and given the choice to opt out of the job. This focus on nudity and sexuality frustrated me partially because it’s a red herring: there are so many ways for a model to actually be objectified. Is she 14 years old and coerced into shoots too mature for her? Is she forced to lose weight? Do people refer to her as a “walking clothes hanger” rather than a full participant in the celebration of sartorial artistry? There are so many aspects to devaluation of agency. Boiling it down to clothed vs. not, chaste vs. sexy, demeans a woman’s choices about her body and detracts from the actual issues at hand.

IV

X I

I realize what a broken record I can be about this. But it’s so important to me. Sex-positivity and the end of shaming will never get anywhere as long as we cling to old definitions – any definitions, really – of what personhood and agency can mean. What it really comes down to, for me anyway, is that I will never know what someone else experiences as empowering. It’s not my place to tell anyone what their self-expression should look like. All I can do is wield my words and try to make the world a more accepting place – of sexuality, of controversy, of nudity.

*drops mic*

XIV VII

hollaback

bright XII

First of all, my HAIR, you guys! My garish, overprocessed, completely me hair! My mom and I got ours professionally done for Mother’s Day. If I didn’t look 100% like a j-pop star before, I sure as hell do now – even though I do not know a single j-pop song and my musical taste runs more in this direction. And, my god, do little girls love me. At least three of them grin and point on my typical daily walk. I’m even cooler than Elsa.

bright IV

Now that I’ve gotten my cuteness out of the way, though, I’m about to get ranty on you. I took these photos yesterday on my front porch in the span of eight minutes. In that time, I fell prey to three honkings and two shouted remarks. You could make the case that the honks weren’t directed at me, that they were a mere exhortation of another driver or a signal to a cat in the road. But when you’ve spent twenty years existing while female, you kind of know. You know when it’s an accident and when it’s flirting and when it’s domination. I’d like to hope that it’s just misguided flirtation. I sympathize enough with the socially awkward to understand such things. But it’s not flirting when you pull up beside me on the sidewalk to scream in my face. And I wish I could call five times in eight minutes an exaggeration or an exception. Spoiler: it isn’t.

bright I

I refuse to accept that a barrage of objectification must come standard with being female and feminine. This is what objectification really is. It’s not about sexualization. It’s not about consenting to perform in media that some find degrading. At its core, it’s about refusal to acknowledge humanity. You can absolutely model nude and do porn and perform burlesque in settings that affirm your humanity. But there’s no way that screaming at a pretty girl out your car window affirms anyone’s dignity. I’m left startled and shaken, and you’re left looking like Captain Asshole.

By all means appreciate me. Mentally undress me to your heart’s content. But the minute you decide that your desires are more important than my personal boundaries, you are no longer worth my time.

bright VI

bright VII

Yell back. Flip them off. Don’t shut up. And, by god, don’t let it change who you are. I’ve known women to mute their personal styles for fear of the constant unwanted attention. I’ve seen people become paranoid, afraid to engage with any stranger at all. I refuse to do that. I will dress colorfully and I will be a sunny person who gives the benefit of the doubt, because that is who I am. Douchebags don’t change that. If I let them, they win.

bright III

bright V

Still not asking for it.

i never claimed not to be a narcissist

I’m aware that this is probably the least beachy setting possible, save for, y’know, a hole in the ground. But as I won’t be going to the beach anytime soon (a miserable confluence of fresh tattoo and 60-degree weather) and I wanted to take advantage of this design while it was fresh in my mind, you’ll just have to ignore the sadly lacking backdrop.

To make up for it, I’m bringing you a little pedagogy with your morning coffee.

I don’t care if you don’t want to see my body, or if my attitude toward it offends you somehow. My body doesn’t exist for you, and I’m actually side-eyeing you pretty hard for even considering that it might. I’m not going to present these photos with some subservient caveat like “it takes a lot for me to post these – hope you enjoy them!” Many women do struggle with body image to the point where exposure becomes taxing. I don’t mean to belittle them and their perspectives, but I abhor the extent to which such long-suffering narratives have become expected. Like you’re not allowed to think you’re hot without couching it in a billion layers of timidity: “it’s okay, I didn’t always think I was hot! and I’m not even sure I think I’m so hot now (please tell me I’m hot)!”

Girls who post bikini photos have to prove they’re “real women”. They have to be Just Like Us. They have to lay bare all their private insecurities and squishy moments of self-doubt lest they be mistaken for arrogant, a “bad role model”, or, Cernunnos forbid, a Slut. Revel in your own flesh a little too much, and suddenly you’re a brazen whore who needs to be taken down a peg. You’d better prove that you don’t really think you’re all that. I’ve always hated the cult of the Real Woman (you know how to be a real woman? Identify as female. There, you’re done.), and I hate it particularly for the way it invites hostility toward anyone who isn’t sufficiently humble, who doesn’t bashfully divert attention from her flaws, as though confidence were finite and one woman’s self-esteem another’s crippling depression.

I understand the root of this, I really do. But I think the process of nudging shy girls out of their shells has created a narrative of its own. The “before and after”. The Everywoman. “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” I begrudgingly admit that I page through the tabloids in line at Price Chopper. I want to punch something every time I see an interview question like “what’s your biggest body insecurity?” We can’t leave beauty well enough alone: we have to dissect it until we’ve been satisfied that it’s all smoke and mirrors, that any given woman has earned her confidence with enough worship at the altar of self-hate. Would we, as a society, know what to do with a woman who answered “I have none. I’m fucking hot.” It would be goddamn open season: “who does she think she is? She thinks she’s better than the rest of us? How does she expect us to relate to her?”

In the societal quest for “relatability”, we’ve forgotten that women have a right to be related to on their own terms, or maybe not to be related to at all. I don’t want to prove that I am One Of You for my appreciation of my body to be validated. As narratives of women’s bodies go, “gawky caterpillar earns her wings” is not a bad one. But mandating it, imposing any strict vision of how women are supposed to feel about themselves, or about anything, helps exactly no one. All it does is reinforce the notion of female bodies as public property, which I refuse to stand for. “Unapproachable”, “unrelatable”, and “bad role model” are all too often code for “woman who runs her own goddamn life”. Fuck approachability. Did I authorize you to approach me?

Maybe you think you’re a feminist. But if you think a woman, by virtue of her sex, owes the world any public obligation than to be exactly who she chooses to be, then you sure as hell aren’t one in my book.

So I woke up feeling political. Sue me. Except please don’t, because our tort system is frivolous enough already.

*or man. I acknowledge that men are also shamed, often for different and equally complex reasons, and I don’t consider this issue “men vs. women”. It’s more “individuals vs. societal expectations”.

bikini X

Okay. I’m done complaining. Time to bask in my glitz and glamour.

bikini I

 bikini V
bikini VI
bikini IX
bikini XI
bikini XII
bikini XIII
bikini XIV
bikini XVI
It’s Latin for “nothing to fear”.
bikini XVII
I maaaay have bought this suit for the explicit purpose of showing off my ink. I am gothabilly to the absinthe-dripping core.
Bikini ($10!) & Pink Scarf: JCPenney Gold Bangles: Urban Outfitters Brooch (on head scarf) & Green Necklace: Old Gold Polka-Dot Blouse & Green Scarf: Battery Street Jeans

a little pedagogy with your nightcap

Last week, the Cynic, one of UVM’s student papers, released a Valentine’s Day issue. Its cover featured a girl unbuttoning her flannel shirt (as though there were any doubt that we’re Vermonters to the syrup-dripping core) to reveal a lacy camisole. This week, the following letter to the editor was printed. I’ve redacted it for brevity and boldfaced parts most relevant to my subsequent critique.

I appreciate the [Cynic‘s] efforts to balance itself as a viable news source while remaining edgy to retain the attention of its target population – college students.

The Cynic has taken this a step too far, however, with the nonsensical objectification on the cover of its Valentine’s Day issue. Because, while this “Sexy Issue” is meant to be the Cynic “unbuttoned”, the only thing truly unbuttoned in this issue is the cover model’s shirt.

Besides the cleavage gracing the cover, the photo posted online the night before with an alternative cover titled “Something big is coming” with a suggestively half-naked male, is equally concerning.

Within this issue, there is no explanation for the displays of skin, no caption or follow-up article. The somewhat forced theme of romance and sex is present, but the cover is only implicitly connected to these stories, which simply leaves room for a shady interpretation.

There are interpretations that could accuse the Cynic of objectifying women … and men. Or maybe the newspaper has decided to just throw some skin on its cover for more student readers. Perhaps the Cynic has decided to embrace its naked culture and become a porn magazine – it’s all up for interpretation.

This sleazy marketing strategy is definitely an attention grabber, and a totally unwarranted one. The choice is ultimately not risque – only tacky.

Anonymous, Class of 2014

Objectification. Something tells me Anon here doesn’t do too many photo shoots. A photo shoot is a collaboration between model and photographer. It’s a lot more nuanced than the subject/object dichotomy to which many critics are fond of reducing it. To use a graphic but (I hope) illuminating metaphor: the dom in BDSM, or even the top in more vanilla sex, is not necessarily in control. It’s a partnership.

I find the word “objectification” itself more than a little insulting. The word itself, and the attendant concept, reduces me to an object far more than anything a photographer could do behind a camera. When you say that a person (usually a woman, and I’ll get to that soon) has been objectified, your implications are themselves objectifying her. You are saying that being photographed is something done to a woman rather than something in which she actively engages. When you tell a model she has been objectified, you are telling her she is an object without choice in the matter of her portrayal. I’ve always hated hearing media critics talk about how women “are portrayed” – passive voice, as though women themselves are never the primary actors. Give them a little agency, for chrissakes. Rarely do I hear anyone raise the possibility that women collude in their own portrayals.

I don’t know anything about the girl on last week’s Cynic cover. I have no idea what the terms of her shoot were. For all I know, the use of her image wasn’t consensual. But it’s patronizing to assume the negative. When I see a woman posing provocatively, I owe her (and all women) the dignity of assuming her choices are her own unless stated otherwise. For me, in that instance, to call her objectified (or sexualized, or any other passive-voice adjective) would be tantamount to shitting on her personal agency.

And it’s always women. I’m using the feminine pronoun not by accident or whim but because these conversations, 95% of the time, are about women. At least Anon threw in a little nod to men’s potential objectification. Other than that, I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of times I’ve seen similar “concern” applied to male models or actors or athletes. Men, for better or for worse, are generally granted the assumption of autonomy. A man takes his clothes off, and people don’t look twice. Maybe a few of them swoon a little. A woman takes her clothes off, and everyone and their sister’s chihuahua has to have an opinion: why did she do it? who is she doing it for? is her decision “good for women” or “bad for women”? I’ve always hated the buzzphrase “good for women”. We rarely ask whether something is good for men. Men are afforded the assumption of independent agency, while women are still regarded (often by nominal feminists!) as not only fundamentally reactive but as interchangeable. Monolithic – what’s good for one woman must be good for all, because god forbid I be a human before a female.

You can disagree with what I do. By all means disagree: I enjoy and encourage debate. But I draw the line at being told I’m not actually running my own life. You’re perfectly entitled to think my sexy photos are disgusting and ought to be shipped on a flaming raft to the sluttiest circle of hell. But don’t you dare try to tell me that these photos were something done to me. When you “accuse the Cynic of objectifying women”, you’re forgetting that there’s a living, breathing human behind that photo. That, not the close-up of her cleavage, is what I call objectification.

on femininity as liberation

Sometimes, like I did back in August, I write about the sociopolitical elements of fashion. Bear with me: it’s the price y’all pay for getting pretty pictures all the time. 😉

~

Feminism has done some pretty sweet things for the female-identified. I’m writing this in an armchair I bought with my own money ($15 at ReSource, not bad), in an apartment I share with four other single women, on a campus I have as much right to as any male student. Earlier today, I went to a doctor’s appointment I didn’t need my father’s or boyfriend’s permission to make. Last month I voted in my first federal election. Considering the state of things a few generations ago, all of that is pretty staggering.

That said, though, I think many of these gains have come at the expense of traditional femininity. Now, hear me out: I’m not going to yell at you to get back in the kitchen or suggest that I don’t have the right to be paid as much as a man. But my idea of feminism isn’t forcing women into masculine roles and doing away entirely with feminine ones. It’s un-gendering roles, period, and leaving everyone to pursue whichever ones they want. Call me naive, but I don’t politicize happiness. I don’t think it’s my feminist duty to avoid traditionally feminine things I happen to enjoy, just to make a statement. Go there, and you’re right back to women subordinating their desires to societal norms, which was the whole problem with the old patriarchal system. (I swear, this point will arrive at fashion eventually. I’m getting there.)

A lot of guys (particularly late teens/early 20s guys – the demographic I date) seem to want girls they can “relate to”. I’m not trying to deride this universally human desire, but rather to examine what “a girl I can relate to” often means. It means more than just a girl whose mind and values and personality align with yours – in my experience, it connotes a girl who’s interested in traditionally masculine things. Gamer girls. Geeky girls. Or, my personal favorite, “natural girls”. “Don’t worry, ladies! You can wipe off that makeup. We prefer you without it, anyway.” It’s an ostensibly sweet message, but it boils down to two flawed tenets: 1) that women should dress for men and not for themselves and 2) that the masculine gender role is the arbiter of all that is “natural” in the world.

Fashion is art. Makeup is art. It’s more than just a petty distraction for girls too insecure to let their natural – i.e. masculine – selves be known. There’s this absurd notion in our culture that there are Issues and there are Women’s Issues. Women who confine themselves to Women’s Issues like fashion and makeup and childcare – don’t they realize how sad and silly they are? They’re merely segregating themselves from the world of Real Issues like hunting and guitar and science fiction. “Real women”, “natural women”, women who can knock back a beer with the best of ’em, are somehow more liberated for having shed the artifice. Femininity is necessarily piddling, artificial, and materialistic, while masculinity is strong and lasting. Women’s interests are for Women, but men’s interests are for People.

A commenter on one of my favorite blogs summed it up really well:

Feminism means valuing the (current culturally-defined) feminine equal to the (currently culturally-defined) masculine. … It means valuing women, it means valuing _feminine_ women, it means valuing the abstract feminine, it means men wearing nifty colored nail polish because the feminine isn’t ‘lesser’.

The last bit of that is especially important to me. Because when certain guys say they want girls they can relate to, they mean girls who will do traditionally masculine things with them. Gods forbid they partake in something feminine, because femininity, after all, is gross and outdated and soon everyone will default to their true state of playing video games and reading science fiction. I happen to be dating a guy with a legitimate interest in costumery. I love that I can discuss the finer points of corset construction with him, but in my experience, he’s kind of an anomaly.

Fashion and costumes bring me more joy than just about anything else in life (save for perhaps ghost stories, classical music, and big cities at night). And in my lifetime, I’d like to see the discipline bridge the social no-man’s-land between Women’s Art and Actual Art. (Maybe shortly thereafter I’ll stop seeing “women’s interest” sections in newspapers and “women’s health” brochures in clinics. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Right now, I’d settle for artistic legitimacy.)