The Consequences of Over-Sexualizing Women’s Bodies

I was ten years old when I started growing breasts, and from minute one, I was ashamed.

I hear stories of girls who wanted to grow breasts, who thought that it made them look grown-up and womanly and all that, but that wasn’t my experience. When I started to grow breasts, I saw them as very sexual things that had suddenly attached themselves to my body, and at ten years old, I didn’t want people to look at me as sexual.

My solution was to start dressing in baggy shirts; lots and lots of baggy shirts, in the hope that my family, my friends, adult strangers who passed me in the street, would not sexualize a ten-year-old body.

As tends to happen to people, I eventually got older, and by the time I was sixteen, I didn’t like the way that baggy shirts looked on me. And so, I switched to tighter-fitting shirts with shorter sleeves and lower necks. There was only one potential problem with this: I had large breasts. And so, naturally, my breasts had this annoying tendency to reveal themselves in the form of cleavage quite often. Not even voluntarily; I could be wearing the most unsuspecting of shirts and – bam, cleavage. It didn’t matter what I did, it didn’t matter how I wore it; so long as I wasn’t wearing a frumpy sweater that was a size too big with a picture of a cat playing with a ball of string across the front, people were gonna see some cleavage.

And for a while, this embarrassed me. Granted, I don’t really remember being called out for what I wore (excluding on one occasion, where a teacher paraded me in front of the class and asked me to prove that my outfit was appropriate for school). But I often found myself noticing when other people’s eyes went to my breasts instead of my face, and I felt guilty for it. I wondered what they thought about me, if I was willing to dress like this. They must think I’m a slut, that I’m looking for attention, that I’m trying too hard to impress them.

Nobody ever called me a slut (so far as I know, anyway). Nobody ever accused me of looking for attention (unless I forgot it over time, because I realized that it wouldn’t matter if I did). And yet, I still felt that my body, including the ways in which it naturally developed and the ways that I decorated it, made me a lesser person.

And why?

Because that is the world that we live in. It is downright common to see and hear women’s bodies sexualized and objectified, and this doesn’t come without consequences. And I’m not just talking about the age-old some-men-see-women-only-as-objects consequences; I’m talking consequences regarding the ways that women and (especially) young girls see themselves.

From the time that I was young, I have heard men go on about how a woman’s breasts are sexually appealing, how her eyes are sexual, how her ass is sexual, how the curve of her hip or her neck are sexual, and all of this amounts to girls who grow up feeling like they can’t really have any of these body parts without it being inherently sexual. And, worse, if they reveal to the world that they have these body parts and someone ogles her or touches her inappropriately, then it is her fault, she shouldn’t have worn what she was wearing.

This latter belief is enforced from a very young age with such things like school dress codes.

If a boy in her class cannot focus on his work because the girl in question has shoulders, then that is deemed to be her problem, she is the one who needs to change. I mean, it’s not as though the boy needs to be told to stop being immature and focus on his work, right?

If a male teacher is uncomfortable with the fact that a student in his class isn’t wearing a bra, then clearly, she needs to start wearing a bra for him. It isn’t like he needs to be told that he should act like a professional and stop sexualizing a child’s body when he’s a grown-ass man, right?

And, really, boy’s bodies are not quite sexualized to the same degree. You never hear about girls getting distracted from their work because the boy sitting next to them was wearing a V-neck. You do not hear people going on and on about how pecks are dirty and sexual, and they need to be covered up as much as possible. You never hear about a boy who was assaulted, and the first question he was asked when he tried to come forward was, “well, what were you wearing?”

Simply by having a female body, society sort of sets you up to be distrusted and ashamed.

But you know what? I’m very glad that I had large breasts as a teenager, and that I couldn’t help but to show a little cleavage. And I know that when I say that, the majority of you are probably thinking that I’m saying that because it got me some good attention – but no. That’s not it at all.

Because, you see, when I first started wearing more tight-fitting shirts, when I first saw my peers’ eyes dart to my chest rather than my face during conversations, I felt ashamed and like I was doing something wrong. But, eventually, I came up with an answer to those wonderings I presented before:

They must think I’m a slut, that I’m looking for attention, that I’m trying too hard to impress them.

And who fucking cares?

If they think I’m a slut, then that’s their problem, not mine. And besides, if they really are the sort of person to look down on someone for how many sexual partners they’ve had or appear to have had, then I’m not sure they’re the sort of influence I want in my life.

If they think I’m looking for attention, then oh-fucking-well. I am looking for attention. We’re all looking for attention; isn’t that the point of life? To be noticed? To stand out? To make a difference in this world, to leave it changed from the way that you entered it? I don’t want to blend into the crowd; I want to lead the crowd, and no, my cleavage won’t necessarily get me that leader position that I’m craving, but it’s not going to stop me either, and while we’re on the subject of looking for attention, why would I deny what we all already know?

And if they think that I’m trying too hard to impress them – I’m not. I’m not trying to impress them. I don’t care about them. I don’t do my make-up for them. I don’t stand in front of my wardrobe and pick out clothes specifically with the intent of making heterosexual men en masse like me. I wear and I do what makes me feel pretty, what makes me comfortable. And sometimes that does mean frumpy, too-big sweaters with cats on the front, but usually that means tight-fitting shirts that show a little bit of skin, because it makes me feel less constrained and more beautiful. And when I feel free and beautiful, I feel more confident, more capable of leading that crowd I mentioned earlier.

And maybe I am risking people sexualizing my body when I don’t want them to, or blaming me for their own wrong-doings and sexist thinking, but end of day, I just don’t care anymore. I’m too old to worry about what people think now, and I’m too comfortable in my skin to change anything for their sake. And if someone ever accuses a woman of being the reason why they acted inappropriately (or, in some cases, even criminally), because she was dressed in a revealing manner, then that person is dangerously, horrendously wrong. They are sexualizing said woman’s body to a gross extent, ignoring her personhood completely and reducing her to little more than an irresistible object.

And that is not okay.

A woman’s body is not responsible for the actions of another. A woman’s body is not inherently sexual, simply by existing. Breasts are just breasts, like a man’s pecks are just pecks. And no ten-year-old girl should ever feel dirty, gross, or sexualized simply because of the way that her body is naturally developing.

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The Purpose of Breasts

Earlier today, I was reading an article about a teenage girl who was told that, because she has large breasts, she needs to be very careful about what clothes she wears to school, lest she become a distraction to the boys in her class.

Now, of course, there’s a lot to unpack in this sentence. I could focus on how harmful high school dress codes are, as they hold teenage girls accountable for their male peers being unable to do their work despite being in close proximity with female bodies. I could focus on the fact that girls with large breasts are sexualized to a ridiculous extent, as it doesn’t matter what shirt they wear – any shirt is considered a ‘distraction’ – merely because the girl has large breasts.’

But these are all issues that people has discussed before, and discussed frequently. So frequently, in fact, that these were many of the comments that were left on the article in question, as well as another comment, which is actually the one that I want to focus on right now:

“People need to stop sexualizing boobs; a woman’s breasts are for feeding children, not sex.”

Now, this statement was made frequently, and it comes a well-intentioned place, I know. All that this statement is supposed to mean is that breasts should be more commonly accepted. Girls and women alike should be allowed to have breasts, to show their cleavage, to be shirtless in public, and it shouldn’t be a big deal because breasts are not inherently sexual organs. And I agree with all of this.

What I don’t agree with is the idea that the entire purpose behind a woman’s breasts is to feed children.

I mean, sure, breasts can be used to feed children. That is certainly a thing that they are capable of, and it is a thing that no woman should be ashamed of or have to do alone, tucked away in the shame corner (also known as the bathroom). It is a thing that we should be allowed to talk about comfortably. I mean, even if you haven’t pushed a human being out of your vagina, chances are you’ve heard people talk about the benefits of breastfeeding, so it’s understandable why people would suggest that that is the purpose for breasts in the first place.

But what about mothers who decide not to breastfeed, whether for economic reasons or health issues or personal preference? I mean, these sort of mothers are becoming a bit of a minority as breastfeeding is pushed more and more in our society, but they most certainly do exist, and are they not valid? Are they not using their breasts properly? Do they have breasts for no reason at all?

What about women who are infertile, and cannot conceive a child, let alone give birth to and nurse them? In the United States, it is estimated that 10 percent of women aged fifteen to forty-four have difficulty getting or staying pregnant – and this is not a small amount of women. But these women may never use their breasts to feed a baby, so are their breasts wasted? Do they fail to serve their purpose, because their bodies are not capable of creating life?

What about women like me, women who do not want to conceive a child of their own? In the past, this might not have even been considered an option for women, but more and more are coming forth nowadays and saying “I don’t want kids!” and that’s fine. There are many reasons to decide that you don’t want kids – whether it be because you are dealing with a mental illness that you don’t want to pass down, you don’t want to deal with the absolute living hell that is pregnancy, or you simply don’t see it as a priority and there are other things you want to focus on – this is a valid choice nowadays. But if you don’t get pregnant, then your breasts won’t fill with milk, and you won’t be able to feed any children. So does that mean that, again, you fail in your service as a person with breasts?

What about transgender women who choose to receive breasts surgically? What purpose do these breasts serve? I mean, they can’t feed children (not unless modern day plastic surgery has advanced much more than I realized). And yet, despite the fact that they don’t serve their apparent purpose, transgender women continue to want them and get them, and is this without a point? Are they spending all this money and going under the knife for no reason at all? Are their breasts, again, wasted?

The way that I see it, breasts are the only body part that people will argue about their purpose. You don’t see people demanding that hands be covered up because they can and do get used during sex, while another group argues that hands are perfectly fine and should be accepted because they can be used to tickle children as well. The truth is, breasts are just breasts. They are a body part, and their purpose is to be bags of fat that hang off your chest. I know that that sounds much less romantic than the alternative, but it’s true.

And as I might have hinted at before, their use changes depending on the woman and depending on the circumstance. Sometimes, breasts are a symbol of femininity that make women feel more comfortable in their gender identity. Sometimes, breasts are an annoyance that flop around awkwardly while you run. Sometimes, breasts are used in sexual acts. Sometimes, breasts are used to feed children. Breasts have uses, but they don’t really have a sole, defining purpose.

And the way I see it, it is dismissive and unfair to say that the purpose of breasts is to feed children, just because, for years, we as a society considered the purpose of women to be bearing children, when that just isn’t reality anymore. Women have options. We can choose to conceive our own children, we can choose to adopt our own children, or we can choose to forego the whole business and raise dogs or cats. We cannot consider the sole purpose of our bodies to be creating and sustaining children, because when we do that, we imply that, by not creating and sustaining children, we are failing at something. But that isn’t the case. Your body is not one, big reproductive organ; you are a person, filled with thoughts and feelings and emotions and passions, and the purpose of your body is to carry all of that. I think that society sometimes makes it too easy for us to forget that, with the sort of language that it uses toward women.

So the next time that you want to say, “it’s ridiculous that we tell girls that they need to cover up their breasts when they aren’t even sexual organs”, say that instead. Because there are too many experiences out there that we ignore and belittle by assigning breasts with a singular purpose.

You Are Not Only ‘Beautiful’

A few times, I’ve written about how important it is for us to recognize our own beauty, and I very much still believe this. But right now, I want to talk about a different sort of beauty. More specifically, inner beauty.

Because our society has a very odd relationship with women and their… well, pretty much everything. It is important for women (in particular) to reclaim their comfort in their bodies because women are consistently told that they shouldn’t think of themselves as beautiful. They’re told that they’re too fat, too thin, too tall, too masculine, they wear too much make-up, not enough make-up, they dress too provocative, they dress to conservative, etc., etc. So whenever a woman claims comfort in her own body, that is always a revolutionary act.

But at the same time, society never really tells women that they need to be any more than beautiful. I mean, yes, they very, very, very much need to be beautiful, and becoming beautiful is supposed to be a constant battle in the eyes of society, something that you can never really stop working on, but if that’s the case, then that sort of robs women of any time that can be spent on developing their character.

In fact, to a certain extent, women are somewhat dissuaded from developing their character from a very young age. I mean, think about the traditional heroes and heroines that we tend to see in simplistic storytelling aimed at children: we have the dashing prince – handsome, yes, but also noble, courageous, and intelligent. And then we have the beautiful princess, who is… beautiful. She might also be described as soft, sweet, kind, innocent, naive, etc., but most of these traits are not necessarily traits of grown women, but frequently of children, and they most certainly are not traits of any active agent. These traits are not given to the heroine so that she can charge her way through the story and really do anything, but to set her as this image of sweet, simple femininity.

And perhaps because of this, if you ask a little girl what they want to be when they grow up, many of them will include the word “beautiful” before they say anything else. Not “intelligent”. Not “courageous”. Beautiful.

And if we want to talk specifically about the trait of intelligence, some studies have shown that girls as young as six years old begin to view intelligence as a primarily male attribute.

But ‘beautiful’ continues to be assigned primarily to women.

And, of course, our obsession with being beautiful comes from society itself. We see TV and movies all the time where not traditionally attractive men are married or involved with traditionally beautiful women, like Family Guy and the Simpsons, and no one really bats an eye at this, and yet we don’t really see this represented the other way around very often. In the workplace, women are sometimes told that to get ahead, they need to present themselves as more physically attractive (though how much this really works is another issue), and some workplaces, such as restaurants, even have uniforms that are intended to show off the beauty of their female employees. So the message that all of this sends to women everywhere is that, if you want love or a career or worth, then you’d better be beautiful.

But ‘beautiful’ is not the only thing that women can be.

It is important that you are comfortable within your body, however it looks, because you are going to have to live in it for the rest of your life. But at the same time, it is also important that you are comfortable with who you are as a person, because similarly, we are going to have to be that person forever.

And we as a society tend to ignore who women are as people.

This even extends to the sort of compliments that women receive. Right from infancy, baby boys are described as “curious”, “cheerful”, and “strong”, while baby girls are described as “beautiful” and “gorgeous”.

Personally speaking, by the time I was in my teens, I had been told that I was beautiful so many times that I knew I was – to this day, I don’t really doubt it. But I hated who I was as a person, because nobody had ever told me that I was strong or intelligent or kind or brave.

And coming from that experience, I see how important it is to have a character that you are proud of.

Because no matter what your gender is, ugly is not the worst thing you can be. This world has been harmed again and again by people who are cruel or manipulative or thoughtless or vindictive, but never by someone who didn’t match their society’s definition of beauty.

People devalue having a good character by saying things like “kindness has never caught someone’s eye from across the room”, but a good character is what builds strong and lasting relationships. You don’t stay with someone long-term because they’re beautiful; you stay with them because they’re kind or intelligent or well-meaning.

Lives are build off of character. Some of our world’s greatest discoveries were made by people who were allowed to develop their intelligence. Some of our world’s most charitable acts were made by people with the strength to persevere despite great hardship. And, yes, some careers can be started from beauty, but if that’s all you are, then you really aren’t going to make it that far. You also need courage, intelligence, creativity, curiosity, passion, resilience…

So, yes, it’s important for us to tell women that they are beautiful; it really is. All women deserve the chance to feel beautiful, regardless of their size, age, race, sexual orientation, ability, or genitals. But ‘beautiful’ is not all that you are, and it is not all that we should aspire to be. It is important that we let women and girls alike know that the pretty princess of childhood stories gathers her worth, not just by being beautiful, but by following her passions, by being intelligent and loving and determined.

And part of the way that we start doing this is by changing the language that we use toward girls, including the ways that we compliment them. Because too often we focus only on what we can see when it comes to women, rather than what we feel and hear.

Why My Feminism Includes Trans Women

I am a feminist. I say this proudly and unapologetically, because I don’t think that this is something that anyone should be ashamed or afraid to be.

But that being said, that does not mean that I agree with everything that every feminist has ever said.

There are some feminists, for example, who present the argument that transgender women have no place in mainstream feminism. They say that transgender women are not actually women, that their experiences are very different from a cisgender woman’s and therefore, they are outside of the movement. Some feminists have even made the comment that including transgender women into the discussion is essentially inviting men into women’s spaces, and that doing this will result in higher statistics of rape (because transgender women clearly want to use the women’s bathroom just so that they can rape women), and/or it might force lesbians to accept penis.

This type of feminism is sometimes referred to as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism, or TERF. And, personally, I have a big problem with it. Personally, I think that it is important that we include trans women in our feminism, because trans women are women. They are women with lived experiences that are slightly different from cisgender women, but that’s the case with many women. A black woman will experience being a woman differently from a white woman. A lesbian will experience being a woman differently from a straight woman. A wealthy woman will experience being a woman differently from woman living in poverty. But none of these experiences are wrong, and none of these experiences should go ignored when we are talking about the issues that women, en masse, experience.

In my opinion, feminism should include everyone. This type of feminism is sometimes referred to as Intersectional Feminism (and for the record, there are more types of feminism out there than I can list off in this article, so I’m keeping it down to these two for now).

And more than that, the issues that transgender women face (and transgender people in general) are very relevant to our discussion as feminists.

Transgender women face violence at an alarming rate. 2016 saw the highest rate of death for transgender people as a result of violence, and some have speculated that violence against transgender people has only increased with the higher media representation of transgender celebrities, like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. Thus far, in 2017, eighteen transgender people have been murdered – seventeen of them women and many of them people of colour.

In a 2009 report, 50 percent of people have died as a result of hate violence toward the LGBTQ community were transgender. Seventeen percent of all victims of hate crime violence toward LGBTQ people are transgender, and eleven percent are transgender women.

And fatal violence is not the only sort of violence that transgender people face either. One in two transgender people report being raped at some point in their life, and some reports have even estimated that 66 percent of transgender individuals will face sexual assault at some point in their lives. This suggests that the majority of transgender individuals are rape survivors – and rape, as you may recall, is an important matter of discussion for feminism.

According to one survey, 50 percent of transgender people have been hit by a primary partner after coming out to them.

I recall seeing a post on Facebook that I will not go into lengthy detail quoting, but within this post, the comment was made that “a man’s biggest fear IS that his date turns out to be transgender” and that “I would beat the shit out of my date if that happened”. I wish that I could say that this was an idle threat, but considering the amount of violence that is reported toward the transgender community, I’m afraid it isn’t. And it doesn’t help matters that, especially in the very recent past, transgender women are frequently represented by the media as “tricking” their heterosexual, cisgendered male dates. In the Family Guy episode “Quagmire’s Dad”, Brian is shown as unknowingly sleeping with a transgender woman, and upon finding out about her gender identity, he is horrified to the point of screaming and proceeds to vomit profusely – because that’s the sort of reaction every woman wants to get from her date. And, yes, I know that Family Guy is based around shock humour, but this humour does not come out of nowhere. It plays on something within our society, and in this scenario, it seems to be the straight, cisgendered male’s fear of getting involved with a “disgusting” transgender woman – a fear that is seen again in the dramatic movie The Crying Game, where the trans woman’s gender identity is played as a horrifying plot twist which, again, causes our straight, cisgendered male protagonist to vomit (though, to be fair, The Crying Game is much more sympathetic to Dill than Family Guy ever was to Ida).

Rates of suicide within the transgender community are also staggering to look at as well. In the U.S., 41 percent of transgender or gender non-conforming people have reported making a suicide attempt, compared to 4.6 percent of the overall population. These reports are most prevalent among transgender people aged 18-44. There are many possible reasons for this, and while reasons may differ between individuals, some of the most common include bullying, feelings of being unable to express who they truly are, and feelings of not being accepted among their family and/or community.

And, like cisgender women, transgender women are also subjected to sometimes unrealistic beauty standards. When Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover came out, the majority of comments focused on how beautiful she looked because she “passed” as a convincing cisgender woman, but not every transgender woman can pass quite so easily. They might not have access to hormones early enough, or they might not have access to surgery, and if that’s the case, then they run the risk of being dismissed as “not feminine enough” to be considered beautiful.

So when feminists talk about body positivity and making sure that every woman feels beautiful, no matter how she looks, we need to make sure we’re including transgender women in this as well.

Many of these issues, in fact, are issues that feminism frequently discusses. Feminism is a massive movement that covers a broad range of topics, and there should be enough room in it for transgender women as well. There should be room enough for all women.

When you exclude trans women from the conversation, then you overlook the issues that they face, and trans women should not have to fight these battles alone. We should be there for them, helping them, trying to create a safer world for them. Because the way that trans women are treated right now is not okay, and we have the means to change that – or at least start to. All we have to do is include them in the conversation.

Why You Need to Do More Than Tell Others to Love Themselves

Social media is absolutely filled with people telling you to love yourself.

People who tell you that your stretch marks are tiger stripes. Your body weight is natural, you are a real woman and therefore you are not expected to look like the women on the covers of magazines.

Maybe you even tell other people the same thing. Maybe you respond to every proclamation of “I’m so fat!” by telling them, “so what? A person’s beauty is not correlated to their weight”, and then you turn around and judging your own image in the mirror.

I know I do.

Logically speaking, I know that there is more than one correct way of being a person in this world. I know that the things we think of as physical flaws are not flaws at all – they’re just parts of us, parts that society tells us that we should be ashamed of, but why? What’s wrong with them, really? Why are we always so hard on ourselves? Why can’t we just learn to accept the parts of ourselves that come naturally, the parts that aren’t hurting anybody, the parts that are not wrong, they’re just different and character-building? What’s wrong with them?

I know all this logically, but accepting that is another matter.

We tend to hold ourselves to a different standard than we do other people. We think that it’s important for other people to love themselves, but it doesn’t matter so much for ourselves. We would hate the idea of someone else staring into the mirror and agonizing over their appearance, wishing that they could change this or that, and yet we do it to ourselves all the time. And of course we do. We live in a society that constantly tells us that we should second-guess ourselves. That we aren’t enough, that we’ll never be enough. We still need to go out there and buy that mascara to make our lashes longer, that lipstick to make our lips larger, do that exercise to make our tummies toned. It’s never enough. The to-do list grows longer and longer with every new advertisement.

But when it comes to body positivity, we need to practice what we preach.

It is one thing to tell people that they are beautiful, that they should love themselves despite how society tells them they should feel. This is a very wonderful thing, because this is a message that we should be spreading. But at the same time, we deserve to know how it feels to truly love ourselves. To look in the mirror and accept all that you see. To know, without any semblance of doubt, that there is no love that we don’t deserve, that we don’t have to settle or hide ourselves, because there is nothing wrong with us. We deserve confidence, and honest confidence – not the sort of confidence that tears other people down, but the sort that builds them up, that makes them look at you and think, “wow, I’d love to be that comfortable in my skin”.

We all deserve that, no matter who you are or how you look.

So start taking the steps toward loving yourself, rather than simply telling other people that they should love themselves. And maybe part of taking those steps is, quite simply, pretending to love yourself. Not necessarily in front of other people – you might do that already, telling them that you love yourself just to prove a point, to pretend to be an example, but when it really counts is when you’re alone. When no one else can hear you, and you have to force yourself to change the language that you use to describe yourself. When you catch yourself thinking something like “ugh, I’m so gross”, change that around to be something positive, something like “I’m really cute today”. Because when you force yourself to think that way, eventually you won’t be forcing yourself anymore – you’ll just start to think that way.

And you should. You are beautiful. You are loveable and unique and amazing and strong. You come complete with so much experience that nobody else has but you – because nobody has lived their lives in quite the same way that you have. You deserve so much more than you think you do, and you deserve to feel comfortable in your own skin. So allow yourself. And don’t do it for me, and don’t do it to prove to others that it is possible to love yourself; do it for yourself. Do it selfishly. Do it because you are amazing, and because it will make you even better. Do it because the world is filled with more than enough hypocrites, telling you to love yourself while simultaneously judging themselves, and you shouldn’t have to be that.