Promiscuous? Provocative? Powerful: The Changing Dialogue on Women’s Bodies
In that women are taking command of their bodies to reclaim their power
I think about Emily Ratajkowski’s brand of activism sometimes. Of course, if you regularly stream content on YouTube, tune into pop culture news and are active on social media, you’d know her––likely, and first and foremost, as the model whose career was catapulted by Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” music video. Six years later and it’s an identifier she still hasn’t shaken off: the hot brunette dancing thong-clad and completely topless (in the unrated version) with two beautiful, equally near-naked ladies. Within those six years, however, the stunning model was able to add several other titles to her name: entrepreneur, actress, dog mom to Colombo, wife and feminist. New identifiers that would otherwise speak to a wholesome, well-rounded multihyphenate.
This résumé of a successful woman in 2019, if made faceless, would signal a kind of knee-jerk conclusion that says, “Hey, that’s respectable, and if we could learn more, maybe admirable.” But this résumé doesn’t belong to just anybody. It belongs to the “Blurred Lines” girl, Emily Ratajkowski: modern-day sex symbol–– still a whole lot of naked a lot of the time––who absolutely enjoys flaunting her sexuality.
It’s because of this reputation that over the years, women like her have become an enigma of sorts. A thing of beauty that keeps the media fixated on her look and engrossed with ways to emulate it. A thing of beauty that compels men to overshare and make repulsive comments on her videos like: “I normally hold my phone with both hands…” When she did the WIRED Autocomplete Interview with Aaron Paul, a web series that plucks out the most popular web searches related to the guest stars for them to answer, the majority of items for Ratajkowski were superficial. They asked about her hair color, how to cop her hairstyle, what’s in her diet and what her workout is. Because all this barely skimmed the surface, the women in the comments section called her boring. The men, who likely take their Emily Ratajkowski-starring wet dreams rather seriously, made her sexiness a punchline this time. “Always wondered what she looked like with clothes on,” one man quipped. “Well, they did not actually [add] the most Google-searched one like ‘Emily Ratajkowski nude,’” said another, complete with a laughing face emoji.
In passing such judgment, some might say that Ratajkowki hasn’t done enough to step out of the box she’s in: conventionally attractive with a bangin’ body. All the heart eyes emojis, fire emojis and compliments that flood her Instagram for that––just that––are well-deserved and cannot be taken away from her. So what’s all the fuss about? Cut just to last week, though, to a post of hers greeted instead by a sequence of nauseated face emojis and vomiting face emojis, and you’ll find now worn-out remarks like “disgusting!” and “ew” for a change. People were and still are taking to the comments section on her page to air grievances (it goes without saying: all unsolicited). The cause of the 180-degree turn? A sensual photo of the 28-year-old in sexy lingerie, in true Emrata fashion, with her svelte arms placed behind her head, one of which reveals armpit hair.
The original image of the woman that people enjoyed, fantasized about, admired, even secretly envied, criticized, sized up and belittled all at once was shattered. And a lot of people were very upset, reacting as though she had committed a crime. People were so let down by the sight of a very natural thing (that men seem to get away with just fine) to the point that Ratajkowski’s powerful message went straight over their heads, only confirming why it’s still very much needed. “Give women the opportunity to be whatever they want and as multifaceted as they can be,” she penned. “Preconceptions be damned.” This is a snippet teasing the enlightening essay she put together for Harper’s Bazaar on “why every woman deserves to be treated with dignity and respect—regardless of how they choose to present themselves to the world.” Here, she also asks: “Why, as a culture, do we insist on separating smart and serious from sexy?”
I’d like to take a whack at this and say that being unable to brand things, people and whatever else in a clear-cut manner––most especially where the cisgender straight male up above oversees all the labeling that takes place––terrifies traditional society. (Ahead, my favorite clip from the movie Syrup to illustrate that point.)
As The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics put it: “bodies are at the core of the political order as markers of status and power.” And traditional society has very clear-cut ideas about the female body, in particular: what it’s for, what it represents and how it exists in the context of a man’s reality.
Vintage advertisements are a testament to this and reveal offensive taglines and narratives that would have women up in arms today. Back then, these didn’t ruffle feathers simply because they reflected the norm. And the norm was, in Western cultures, women were inferior. “Nice hair, nice eyes, nice teeth,” one ad read, literally crossing out the woman’s hair, eyes and teeth in the photo. “BUT these charms may be wasted if she uses the WRONG DEODORANT.” Even more infuriating was the 1930’s Lysol clipping (fun fact: Lysol was originally an antiseptic soap used for vaginal douching) that showed a picture of a man walking out on his wife and daughter. Plastered on this poster was the text: “Another Love-match shipwrecked … on the dangerous reef of half-truths about feminine hygiene. Lysol has prevented many such tragedies.” There are two things that tie these cringeworthy ads together. One is that making a woman feel small was an actual marketing tactic. Two: attracting men and keeping men were made legitimate reasons for women to buy products. Their relationships depended on it.
Back here in 2019, these marketing ploys may be obsolete, but it’s just as (if not more) alarming that they exist today, indoctrinated vis-à-vis religion. I’m reminded of the pamphlet that a friend once showed me as he and his fiancée readied to participate in a couple’s workshop. The booklet gave the women in this church event very specific guidelines on “understanding their role as helper” in an entire chapter dedicated to “meeting their husbands’ needs.” No such chapter existed in the pamphlet created for the men. The instructions for women were further underscored by reminders like: “The most important thing that a mother can do for her children is to love their father.” No ifs, no buts, no maybes. No conditions wherein the woman exercises her right to choose in a world where the man does not stand right in the middle. These are the rules––and they’re numbered for easier retention. (You’re welcome, ladies.)
So, really, so much for “my body, my choice.” Considering, too, that the scenarios above don’t even touch on sexuality just yet. In talking about issues like reproductive health, the woman’s body is made a political battleground. In settling the score about what’s beautiful and what isn’t, the woman’s body is a debate forum. The stripping away of unrealistic beauty standards is time-consuming and patchy. And when it finally comes to this tantalizing thing called sex, the woman’s body is the object upon which men and even fellow women who abide by patriarchal beliefs project the concepts of control, power and dominance.
This is so useless to me. Where would your career be without the naked women in your music videos? A whole 20+ year career from talkin about “bitches and hoes”, but now you don’t wanna see it. https://t.co/ymg2s8jGqQ
— Big Sexy Georgia Woman (@overawls_) August 22, 2019
In 2017, one Samirah Raheem proved just how difficult it is to reclaim these things for women at LA’s SlutWalk, an annual event that demands an end to slut-shaming, victim-blaming and rape culture. Her documented brush with a conservative reverend and media personality Jesse Lee Peterson went viral soon after their video was posted. In the interview with the religious figure, Raheem explained why she was taking back one particular word in the long list of derogatory terms aimed largely at women.
“We are all sluts,” she is heard declaring, making clear that her body “is not a political playground and neither is it a place for legislation.” Not diving into the empowering statement and switching topics instead, the reverend then asks Raheem about how old she is, to which she quickly answers: “grown.” The push-and-pull only ensues:
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With this encounter taking place not too long ago, it comes as no surprise that it will take years to rewrite the rules and the cumulative efforts of women like Samirah Raheem who intend to take away the power of derogatory language, one word at a time, and rework its meaning along the way. It will take displays like that of Emily Ratajkowski’s that disrupt and bother and disturb not for shock value but to remind society about the difficult standards women are held against for the sake of beauty, dignity, respect and modesty. It will take standing up to bullies, but hopefully not in the way the brave Bella Thorne had to when a hacker held her private photos hostage and threatened to leak them if his demands weren’t met. (The 21-year-old eventually made the difficult decision of leaking her own nude personal photos instead to reclaim the power from the perpetrator trying to exploit her.)
While these voices are loud, choices bold and very visual depictions of a woman empowered in her own skin unnerving to the conservative audience, there’s actually nothing radical about the “new” dialogue women are choosing to have today. The concept is rather simple: If a woman does not put another person in harm’s way or infringe on another’s fundamental rights, what she does with her body is nobody else’s goddamn business.
Art Alexandra Lara