Why Nudity Can Be Empowering

The relationship that women have with their own bodies is a very odd one in our society. And by that, I am specifically referring to the fact that whether or not women should be clothed and in what situations it is appropriate is actually a very controversial and passionate conversation that our society holds.

Some people say that women should be conservatively dressed at all times, because if they’re going to ‘dress like a whore’ then they deserve to be treated ‘like a whore’.

Some people say that nudity is empowering, and that women should be allowed to wear what they want when they want.

And more recently, I’ve heard the argument that nudity is actually oppressive toward women – not because of that whole ‘whore’ thing that I discussed earlier, but because we live in a patriarchal society. This argument states that women should not dress provocatively, and they should not present themselves in a sexual manner publicly, because that is what society expects from us. Society sees us as sexual objects, and thus we are fulfilling that role for them. We turn ourselves into sexual objects because that is what we are expected to be.

But, personally, I take issue with this third argument. I take issue with the first argument too, but that isn’t my focus now – what I want to talk about is how nudity can, yes, be objectifying, but it can also be extremely liberating. It all depends on the context.

This third argument, in my opinion, is taking a very specific situation and using it to disregard nudity and open sexuality altogether. This argument focuses on the typical model on the cover of a magazine, dressed in as few clothes as possible and tipping her head back, full lips parted, passivity in her eyes. This argument focuses on women like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears, women who are traditionally beautiful and who frequently pose provocatively, but they do so for a male gaze. This is the age-old argument against pornography: it’s all about the man’s pleasure, and never the woman’s. She can be sexy, but she must also be pure, faithful, silent. And, yes, this is an objectifying and oppressive situation. But it is just one side of the story.

Because as much as there are women who pose provocatively specifically for a male gaze, there are also women who can be openly sexual and be doing it for themselves, for their own pleasure. The pop singer P!nk, for example, who has vocally taken issue with the way that Kim Kardashian uses her own sexuality, has frequently sang songs about sex, posed provocatively for photographs and appeared scantily clad in her music videos, and has in fact been either publicly nude or close to. And yet, the difference between these two celebrities is that one never gets the feeling that P!nk is not in control of her own sexuality and her own body. She is not dressed that way because some male advisor told her that it would be the best move for her career; she is dressed that way because she wants to be dressed that way (or so her public image would suggest). And that creates a world of difference. No longer is the woman in question a sexual object, there to be looked upon by a man. All of a sudden, she becomes an actual person, someone with a body and a sexuality all her own, that she commands. She is in complete control.

And more than that, ‘nudity’ and ‘sexuality’ are not always the same thing. We always assume that, if a person is scantily clad or naked, that must mean that they are inherently doing so for someone’s attention, right? Well, not necessarily.

There are a lot of people in our society who are routinely told by society that their bodies are ugly. In fact, I’d venture to guess that the vast majority of people are told that their bodies are ugly. This message is given to overweight people, scarred people, people with stretch marks, disabled people, transgender people, people with extra skin, people who are older or wrinkled – the list goes on. And when people are told that their bodies are ugly, they are told that they should cover it. So the simple act of not doing that, of forcing people to look at your body when society has made it so easy for them to forget that it even exists, is a liberating one.

And to return to the issue of women and their bodies, women are told even more frequently than men are that their bodies are wrong, disgusting, and simultaneously, sexual objects. Women have been reprimanded for breastfeeding in public, because the act involves uncovering a breast, and people do not want to see that. Instead, the woman must segregate herself from society, feeding her baby in a dirty and busy bathroom. Women are told that they must maintain their bodies in ways that men find sexually appealing, and so if a woman goes into public with uncovered and unshaven legs or armpits, they run the risk of being told that that is disgusting. But the thing about these two examples is that they are not disgusting; they are naturally occurring parts of a woman’s body, but society has made it all to easy to forget that.

One good example of this sort of nudity that we’ve seen in the media recently would Amber Rose’s bottomless photograph that she added to Instagram, proudly showing off her pubic hair – something that women are often told that they should shave if they want to be considered sexy. If Amber Rose was playing into society’s expectation that she be a sexual object, then she would have also played into society’s expectation that she be completely hairless to make it easier for the average man to objectify her, but she didn’t. She wanted people to see her pubic hair because she wanted people to remember that women have pubic hair and that that’s okay. There should be no shame attached to it. It’s just a part of her body.

So while nudity can be empowering in the scenario where it is used to foreground the woman’s control over her own sexuality, it can also be empowering when it is used to deny the belief that something about the woman’s body is disgusting or not right. And both of these types of empowerment are incredibly important. We as a society tend to ignore female sexuality, to focus almost entirely on the man and his pleasure, and so it is important to see women who are willing to say, “yes, I am a woman, and yes, I have my own desires”. Women need to know that it is okay for them to explore their own sexuality. And furthermore, women need to know that their bodies are okay the way that they are. When we do see nude or scantily clad bodies, too often they are all very similar – airbrushed, photoshopped, perfected into what the typical man would think of as ‘sexy’, but there are so many different kinds of bodies to have. Women with stretch marks need to know that they aren’t alone. Women with extra body fat need to know that they aren’t disgusting. And women with disabilities need to know that they are still beautiful. And one good way that we can prove this is by showing them examples. And these examples most certainly exist – they’re just told that they need to keep themselves hidden beneath clothing.

And yes, there are situations where nudity can be used as more oppressive than liberating. And yes, there are more ways to empower women than just nudity, and in some cases, some women would prefer modesty. These women are perfectly valid, but so are the women who are empowered by nudity or skimpy clothing. We as a society cannot ignore their experiences, and we cannot assume that every time that a woman dresses herself, she is doing so for the approval or disapproval of men.

Hot or Not: Women and Competition

It was a very usual day, and I was passing the time in a very usual way – by bumming around on the internet. And while I was there, I came across a very usual post, one that I have seen variations of before and will see variations of again. This particular post used the figures of two female celebrities, Madonna and Lady Gaga, and it asked the question: which of these two women is hotter?

Now, there are many things that I could say about this post. I could say that Madonna and Lady Gaga are both intelligent business women and artists who have fought to keep themselves relevant through the changing years, and yet this post reduces them to their physical beauty. I could say that both women are much more than their appearance, and more than that, they have represented themselves as being more than mere objects whose beauty is to be judged and determined by others. But that isn’t what I’m going to say. As much as all of that is true, what I am going to discuss is the manner in which these two women were being pitted against one another as competition in beauty.

And this is not a rare occurrence for women either – sometimes very directly, such as the example of the post that outright asked whether Madonna or Lady Gaga was hotter, and sometimes more subtly, such as when people make comments like “girls who are *insert body type here* are much more attractive than girls who are *insert body type here*”. This last example gets passed around quite often. Women who are a bit larger are made to feel as though they would be more beautiful if they just lost some weight, but in attempt to validate women who are larger, the internet produced a quote that read “real men like curves, only dogs go for bones”. And body weight is not the only area through which women are pitted against one another. Women who don’t wear make-up are told that girls who do are more beautiful, while women who wear a lot of make-up are told that girls who wear natural make-up are more beautiful. And the competition doesn’t even end at physical beauty – many women, especially teenage girls, feel the need to insist that they “aren’t like other girls”, as though to say that there is something wrong with other girls while she is inherently better.

In a lot of ways, it seems as though our society has decided that there is one clear way that is ‘right’ to be a woman, but they haven’t entirely decided what that way is. Some will say that curvy women are hotter, some will say that skinny women are hotter. Some will say that feminine women, who enjoy doing their hair and nails, are better, and some will say that masculine women, who fix up trucks and live for sports, are better. Some will say that Madonna is hotter, and some will say Lady Gaga is hotter.

And you know the reason for this? The reason is that there is no one way to be beautiful.

We too often forget that. We think that we can come up with a definitive winner in this competition that all women were unwillingly entered into. Who is the hottest woman? What is the best way to be woman? But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. One person will like skinny girls, and another person will like curvier girls. One person will like girls who wear a lot of make-up, and another person will like girls who wear natural make-up. There will always be someone out there who will think you are beautiful, and there will always be someone out there who will think you are not, no matter what you do. It is impossible to please everyone, so really, why bother? The only person you have to please is yourself. So long as you are happy and you are comfortable in your own skin, the right people will be able to see that and love you for it.

So let’s stop pitting women against one another. Let’s stop saying that one woman is hotter than another because, really, she isn’t. Both women are beautiful, and they are beautiful in their own ways. And this idea that women need to be in competition with one another to be the most beautiful or gain the most men (if the woman in question wants men, that is) is only hurting us in the long run. We should be supporting one another, not tearing each other down. We should be trying to make our fellow women feel like they have value, like someone out there cares about them, because that is a much more beautiful thing to do than tearing each other down to build ourselves up.

Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Period!

I have a confession to make: I am a person who was born with a vagina.

And as a person who was born with a vagina, I am plagued with something monthly, something rather irritating, something that I’d really rather not deal with but nature demands that I have to. And besides, I suppose I’d rather deal with it than not deal with it, because not dealing with it indicates something very, very bad for where I am in my life right now. It has been called by many names: it is my “rag”, my “aunt flow”, the “crimson horror”.

That’s right, I’m talking about my period.

It’s something that I’ve lived with since I was ten years old, and it’s something that most people with vaginas deal with for the majority of their lives. And yet, oddly enough, whenever I’m in public and I feel the need to go off and take care of it, I always feel the need to do so in secret. Usually this is done in one of two manners: 1) I need to slip off to the bathroom with my purse or my backpack or whatever it is I’m carrying. Don’t tell me that it’s okay, you can watch it while I’m gone, because that sort of defeats the purpose of doing this all secretly. I mean, sure, I appreciate the offer and I totally trust you to not steal my stuff, but what you are doing is forcing me to admit to a crowded room that I need to take my bag into the bathroom, it isn’t optional, and if they know that, then they might figure out that I’m on my period, and then what? What will they think of me then!? Or, on the other hand, I can lean heavily over my bag, slip a pad into my shirt or into my pocket (if I’m lucky enough to have them, considering women’s clothes famously lack them), and I can then shuffle off to the bathroom hoping that that crinkling sound is just a bag of chips stuffed into my clothes.

And as far as talking about periods goes, the water gets kind of rocky. For a long time in my teenage years, I felt awkward discussing it with anyone, having internalized the idea that periods were wrong and gross and overall icky. Now, I’m a little more open about discussing it, but for the most part, the topic only ever gets brought up among groups of close girl friends. Men are more hesitant to talk about it – some are more accepting of the fact that it is a natural part of some people’s lives, while others continue to accept society’s generalization that women’s bodies are gross mysteries. Every once in a while, you’ll still hear the joke about how awkward it is for a man who is asked to go to the store to buy tampons for his wife, girlfriend, daughter, niece, next-door-neighbour, whatever, as though he thinks that by buying them, everyone will automatically assume that he is using them. As though buying them or using them is somehow degrading – and, yes, I know that the joke is that it is a conflict with their masculinity, but if their masculinity is so fragile that buying tampons attacks it, then maybe that isn’t the problem.

And when men are willing to talk about periods, it’s never as a positive or even neutral thing. It is not a simple fact of life, it is a hindrance to your and their existence. And, yes, people who actually have periods will complain about them – the cramps, the hormonal changes, the spotting, the whole process is a rather unpleasant one, but it is never someone who experiences periods who accuses someone of being on their period because they are behaving a little emotional. The question “are you PMSing” is used to undermine and belittle a woman’s argument frequently, especially if she is angry. And periods have been used as the reason for why a woman can never be president, because if she were, then she’d probably “PMS” and declare war on China or something ridiculous like that.

Honestly, how can women possibly be proud or even neutral to the fact that nature has decided this needs to happen to us once a month when this is the way that we are talked about because of it? Of course we have to hide our pads when we sneak off to the bathroom – if we don’t, nothing that we say will be taken seriously! It will all be written off as being a result of “PMS” or “hormones”. And the truth is, most of the men who talk about periods this way are incredibly misinformed about how the genetically female body works. Yes, there are some hormone changes that occur as a result, but they are not so drastic that they will influence a woman to declare war on China just because they can. In my personal experience, my period just tends to make me cry at everything I see – movies, music videos, video games, a cute puppy, whatever. Is it pathetic? Maybe. Does it make me any less worthy of respect, and is it something to be ashamed of? No. Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. A person who receives their period does so because (in most cases) they are capable of creating life. That is an incredible thing that is difficult to fully wrap your head around – honestly, think about it: a person who receives their period is capable of creating an entire other human being. And, hey, maybe I’m not currently at a point where I necessarily want to think about creating life, but it is still a natural part of my life that occurs every month. It isn’t gross. It isn’t shameful. It just is.

So why should we feel the need to hide it? Why is it that going from a public place to the bathroom should involve packing around a heavy bag or slipping a pad or tampon into its safe little hiding space? I mean, if someone gets a runny nose in public, they don’t need to hide the napkins from sight, do they? And at its most basic, that’s what a period is: a bodily function, something that happens to us as human beings, like a runny nose. A little bit inconvenient, sure, maybe something we’d rather not deal with, but nothing to be ashamed of and nothing that takes away our value.

 

The Sacrifices We Make To Be Thin

A couple of days ago, I saw a picture of a woman on Instagram. The frame focused on the woman’s torso, and she was turned just slightly aside, so that the lighting perfectly caught her abdominal muscles, making her look thin and fit. Underneath the photo, she had written the caption, “This is the only time I have abs, and I haven’t eaten for twenty four hours because I’ve been sick and throwing up”. The photo had been liked multiple times, and it had only one comment, written by another woman: “I’m so jealous.”

Now, I’m sure this woman didn’t mean her comment the way that it sounded. I’m sure she was not actually saying that she would love to be physically ill and vomiting to the point that she cannot bring herself to eat for twenty four hours, all for the sake of obtaining abs. Chances are, she did not read the photo’s caption and merely thought that the first woman’s abs were admirable. However, there was something about seeing this exact comment on this exact photo that simply felt like a microcosm of how we as a society see women’s bodies.

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The photo above shows me two years ago, when I was 175 pounds and unhappy with my body. I was just coming out of a year spent coping with depression and eating what polite society would generously call a fuckton of fast food (pizza was my kryptonite), and so I came to the conclusion that if I was going to make a permanent change in my lifestyle, I was going to start with my diet and exercise habits.

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Fast forward a year, and now we’re at this photo. Here, I am 125 pounds. I had worked damn hard to lose those fifty pounds, and I was incredibly proud of myself for it, but on average, I was only eating about a thousand calories a day – and for those of you who don’t count calories, that roughly translates to “not enough food”, especially considering I was working out six days a week on top of that. There were nights where I only went to bed as early as I did because I knew that if I went to sleep, then that would bring me to breakfast faster. On average, I went through my days feeling hungry and weak. I was shaky, I had a hard time focusing on the things that I loved to do, and there were times where I missed being physically larger simply because I didn’t feel quite so vulnerable and small when I was. But at the same time, as much as I did not feel well, I was dedicated to staying that way. I counted my calories diligently, and if I went over, or if I ate more than one cheat meal a week, then I felt incredibly guilty to the point of tears, sometimes to the point of feeling the urge to go into the bathroom and try to make myself throw up (I never did, thankfully). And the strange thing about all of this is that I don’t really know why I, of all people, felt this way. I mean, yeah, 175 pounds was a little heavy for me, but I had been a curvy girl my whole life until this point – and I was damn proud of my curves too. I was that girl who reminded people that Marilyn Monroe had been a size twelve. I was that girl who rolled my eyes at the idea that women needed to lose weight to be beautiful. I was that girl who seriously questioned why ‘fat’ necessarily needed to be an insult. And yet, here I was, starving my body and putting myself through emotional torment – and why? It wasn’t to be beautiful – I thought that I was beautiful before. So why was I doing this to myself?

Well, to be honest, I think that it was because of the way that we as society view women’s bodies – and I return to the Instagram commenter as my microcosm. It didn’t matter that the first woman needed to starve herself and be physically ill to get abs – the fact that she had abs was the only thing that mattered. We tend not to see the pain that goes into getting the body that society tells us we should want. Hell, we tend to not even think of it. When someone we know has lost a ton of weight, our go-to comment to make is always, “wow, you look great”. And of course, this compliment comes from a supportive place – all that we’re trying to do is assure someone that all of the hard work they’ve put into their body is being noticed. But what about the girl who lost all of that weight by starving herself? What about the person who lost weight because they were sick? When they’re being told that they are increasing their value in the eyes of those around them by causing themselves harm, then that is going to encourage them to keep causing themselves harm. They are going to keep on starving themselves, and they are going to keep on ignoring all of the signs that their body is giving them that they need to change what they are doing, all to get that compliment and feel that sense of accomplishment.

I’ve seen it done, again and again. The woman who knows exactly how long she can go without eating anything is told, again and again, by everyone around her, that she looks great and should keep doing what she is doing. And so she does keep doing it. She keeps on starving herself and she keeps on putting her own health at risk, all because we as a society have decided that the only acceptable way for a woman to look is thin, and so some women will do anything they have to to achieve that.

In my case, I didn’t even think I hadn’t been beautiful before. I just knew that I wanted to change my life, and considering the comments that I was receiving and the expectations that I placed in myself, so long as I kept losing weight, I was doing something right.

I decided to change my lifestyle shortly after I reached 125 pounds. People had been telling me for a while that I looked too thin, that I was a person built to be curvy and I didn’t look right so small and bony, but that wasn’t the reason that I decided to change. No, the reason why was because I sat down to write one night, to do the one thing that I always told myself came before anything else, and I couldn’t do it because I felt so weak and hungry. It was at that moment that I realized it wasn’t worth it. I decided that I would rather feel strong and energetic than look the way that society expected me to look. I still eat healthy and I still work out six days a week, but now, I eat when I feel hungry and I make sure not to count calories. I have gained seven pounds since, and I feel much happier and much more comfortable in my own body.

But it still scares me when I see exchanges like the one on Instagram. I hate to think of all the girls and women who are putting their bodies and minds through hell, and they continue to do it because they continue to receive compliments for their weight loss, as though their being thin somehow matters more than their feeling strong and well. And it’s difficult to say that we should not compliment someone on their weight loss at all, because if someone has lost a lot of weight by simply making healthy changes to their lifestyle, then that is something that should be celebrated. But girls and women should also know that being thin is not the most important thing that they can be – being happy and healthy is infinitely more significant. Strength is so much more beautiful than a lean stomach will ever be.

And my message here is not that there is any one way that our bodies should look. I am not trying to belittle the beauty in thin bodies, nor in larger bodies, nor in muscular bodies. I firmly believe that every body type is beautiful, but it is more important that you feel comfortable and happy, and that you are healthy in mind and body. I believe that it is absurd that society encourages us to sacrifice our wellbeing for a body that is easier to accept. I believe that we are more than our physical appearances, that our thoughts and feelings and happiness has value, and that no one should ever feel the need to cause themselves harm in order to become something that society says they should.

Don’t Be Victims

“Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable feminity. Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars–to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording–all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…” – Sylvia Plath

As girls, we’re told that we need to be careful.

As girls, we’re told that we need to cover up. We need to wear shirts that cover our breasts, our shoulders, our bra straps. We need to wear pants or skirts that don’t show too much of our legs. Because if a man should see us in public dressed like that, should he realize that we are concealing actual human forms beneath layers of cloth and should he decide to do something that harms us, then that is our fault because we provoked him. We showed too much of ourselves, we dangled a juicy steak in front of a hungry, brainless, stupid dog. What did we expect would happen?

As girls, we’re told to watch our drinks, to mind ourselves carefully when we go out. Don’t drink too much, the way that men do. Know exactly how much alcohol you can handle at all times, even if you’ve never drank before, or you don’t do it very often. Don’t get sloppy, don’t pass out, don’t let a man slip something into your drink, because if you do, and if you get hurt, then that is our fault. We invited it. Don’t you know that girls aren’t supposed to drink? We may live in a society that glorifies alcohol as the primary way to have fun, a society that states that you are a boring prude if you don’t drink, but it doesn’t matter. As a girl, you should know better than that.

As girls, we’re told to protect ourselves at all times. Don’t go out at night unless you absolutely have to, and if you absolutely have to, there’s no question about it, then at least don’t go alone. Take someone with you, preferably a big, strong, masculine man to protect you, you weak, frail-bodied victim, you. And if you do have to go out and you can’t find anyone to go with you, not even another girl, then at least prepare to be attacked. Carry your keys between your fingers, so that when he comes up behind you, you can spin quick and catch him in the eye, and maybe that’ll give you a head start. Maybe you can escape him then.

As girls, we’re told that the world is a dangerous place, and we cannot go it alone. There are certain spaces where we are not welcome, where simply being a woman in that space can get you raped or beaten or killed. As girls, we’re told that we are Little Red Riding Hood, and we need to be on constant lookout for the Big Bad Wolf, because if he gobbles us up, then it isn’t because he’s a Wolf – of course he’s a Wolf, that’s his nature. No, it’s just because we weren’t looking for him hard enough.

Fuck that.

As a woman, I don’t want to live my life with my body constantly on my mind. I don’t want to have to worry if what I’m doing will get me raped or killed or beaten or kidnapped. As a woman, I want to see every last corner of this earth, whether I’m welcome there or not, and I want to be able to go there without having to remember that I am a woman, and that that puts me at risk. I don’t want to not be a woman, but I want to be seen as a person first. I want my life to matter more than my breasts, my right to my own body to be more important than what I was wearing. If I’m brutally raped or murdered, then I want that to be a tragedy and not a question of whether or not I deserved it. I want to be seen as a victim only after something happens to me, not before.

And I may not see any of this in my lifetime – I may never be able to walk into a seedy bar and order a drink without worrying about someone slipping something into it, or about drinking too much and being taken advantage of. But the way that this starts to change, the way that we can make things better, is not by telling our daughters don’t be victims, but by telling our sons don’t hurt women.