Sports Illustrated & Its Swimsuit Issue: Body Positive Or Not?

When I heard that Sports Illustrated was including a number of plus-size models and an older model in its latest swimsuit issue, my initial reaction was to celebrate. Finally, more women who don’t fit the conventional ideas of beauty would see themselves reflected within the pages of this iconic issue. Beauty, after all, comes in all shapes and sizes. Now, here was Sports Illustrated embracing that message. But, is the magazine’s decision to feature more types of women in its swimsuit issue a move that genuinely liberates women and girls from the outdated notions of beauty? Or does it squeeze more of us into the narrowed lens of approval that comes from sexual objectification?

Ashley Graham, who is a size 16, and appeared in last year’s swimsuit issue in a Swimsuits for All ad, is one of three models selected as a cover girl for this year’s issue. Also joining her with their own covers are UFC wrestler Ronda Rousey, whose physique is more athletic than what we’ve come to expect of conventional swimsuit models, and Hailey Clauson, a blonde, slender, blue-eyed model who fits the traditional mold.

And there is also this: Graham is the first plus-size model to get on a cover of the swimsuit issue. This is considered an even bigger honor than making it into the magazine. In a Facebook post, Graham wrote, “This cover is for every woman who felt like she wasn’t beautiful enough because of her size.” (It bears noting that the “plus-size” label is deceptive. The CDC says that the average US woman weighs 166.2 pounds and has a 37.5-inch waist circumference. Yet many in the fashion industry consider women who are smaller than that a “plus-size,” meaning supposedly larger than the average sized-woman.)

The sexualized images of females depicted in the media does affect the way women and girls relate to their own bodies. It is through this one-dimensional, distorted lens of perception that we learn to see (and judge) ourselves and each other.

Even though the world is filled with women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, it’s typically the younger, thinner, taller, and until recently, fairer-skinned models that appear in fashion and beauty ads. No wonder so many women and girls think that they don’t measure up to society’s manufactured standards of beauty—or, that they’ll lose their appeal once they reach a certain age.

This is why Sports Illustrated’s decision to include 56-year-old Nicola Griffin in the issue in a Swimsuits for All ad is being hailed as another revolutionary move. Griffin, who didn’t start modeling until after her kids went to college, is the oldest model to ever be featured in a SI Swimsuit issue. In the ad, she is posing in a metallic gold bikini, her head crowned in all its gray-haired glory.

However, the same problem remains: The 2016 swimsuit issue, like every other one that has come before it, continues to perpetuate a particular way of seeing. It is a perspective that takes women’s bodies and sexually objectifies them for the gratification of its audience while bestowing “approval” in the process.

The thinking goes like this: If Sports Illustrated is allowing “plus-size” and older females into its swimsuit issue, then they really must be hot. (In reality, women like Graham and Griffin have always been beautiful and sexy. It’s society’s outdated beauty standards that have been slow to catch on.) That Sports Illustrated’s editorial choices are considered such a big deal shows how much value society continues to place on what straight men presumably consider sexually attractive when it comes to defining feminine beauty and who gets to fit that bill.

It’s also important to remember that at the end of the day, the swimsuit issue’s main objective isn’t to promote body positivity. It’s here to sell magazines. It does this by turning the female body into a visual commodity and making millions of dollars every year in the process.

Some of you might be saying, “It’s just photographs of beautiful women in bathing suits, what’s the big deal?”

Any kind of objectification of the female body is harmful.

Female objectification invites men to see women as sex objects rather than individuals. It has been connected to eating disorders, body shame, low-self esteem, depression, and other health issues in girls. On the extreme end, female objectification has been linked to incidents of domestic violence, physical violence, and sexual violence against women and girls.

Rather than try to fit more women and girls into the stifling and disempowering lens through which we continue to be portrayed in so much of the media, we need to dismantle this particular filter. As a society, let’s do more celebrating of women and girls as they are in real living color—not merely captured to maximum sexiness on the page—but as human beings who are so much more than what is pleasing to the eye: Complex. Raw. Intelligent. Passionate. Sexual. Strong. Emotional. Creative. Untamed. Opinionated. Unique. Original.

Now that’s hot.


New Year Resolutions for the Body

I took an unintended break from the blog world a couple of months ago. It began when I decided to immerse myself in my memoir again, which meant harnessing most of my creative energy into finishing that story. Just as I was about to jump back into blogging a good friend of mine reminded me that the female body, which is naturally attuned to the seasons, intuitively wants to rest and “go into the dark” this time of year even when our holiday year-end commitments dictate otherwise.

Hearing her words gave me the permission that I needed to give myself but didn’t know I’d been craving to STOP. I wasn’t aware of how much I’d been holding on to on my to-do list until that point—never mind that I’d already spent a huge chunk of the year writing my book and planning my wedding.

Oh right! It’s the time of year to go fallow! I went into semi-hibernating mode and loved every minute.

My body also underwent another kind of break last year after I started seeing a chiropractor. I’d been living with chronic neck and low back pain for 10 years and I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The doctor said that my injuries, from I don’t even remember what because they happened so long ago, were 100% fixable. All I had to do was keep seeing him for adjustments/physical therapy and stop working out for awhile to give my body time to heal.

“You mean for a week?” I asked him, hoping the answer would be closer to a few days.

“Probably longer than that,” he replied, noncommittally.

Little did I know this hiatus would last longer than five months. I hadn’t stopped exercising since I started doing Jane Fonda’s videos as a teenager.

A few years ago, there wouldn’t have been enough money you could pay me to stop working out unless I was physically unable. My worth was so tied to needing to weigh a specific number and looking a certain way, injuries and constant pain be damned. I would have been too terrified to let go of that rigorous control. God forbid I gain a pound or two or three.

And while I now understand, not just in my head but in my bones, that my value as a woman has nothing to do with the number on the scale, the size of my jeans or how “in shape” I am—what does that even mean, really?— I was surprised at how these old anxieties came rising to the surface when I stopped exercising.

My body is an object to be controlled and regulated. Who knows what my appetites might make me do otherwise. 

Not being able to work out forced me to confront these messages that were still running the show and deal with them.

Rather than run amok when left to its own devices, my body did what it knows how to do and healed. (Finding out that the injuries were “100% fixable” got me wondering at how easy I’d been willing to tolerate constant pain for so long just because I’d gotten used to it.)

Yes, my body is softer and rounder because I haven’t been exercising. But that is what my body naturally looks and feels like when I don’t work out several times a week. And when I get back into an exercise routine it will naturally change shape to reflect whatever it is I decide to do or not do.

This time, I resolve to cultivate a more empowered relationship to fitness  that doesn’t involve using work outs to beat my body into submission. I’d like to see what my body looks and feels like when I exercise from a place of desire rather than compulsion, pleasure instead of fear, self-love and not lack of it.

What about you?

Happy New Year to all!

Picasso & I Resolve to Relax Plenty in 2016

Picasso & I Resolve to Rest Plenty in 2016


The Goddess of Enough

With anything that’s alive and constantly evolving in the moment, it’s time to honor the need for this particular “belly” to expand by making make room for other kinds of stories I’d like to tell as well.

I love writing about women’s bodies and sharing my experiences of reclaiming my womanhood from the patriarchy—and there will be more stories about the feminine to come. But focusing just on the reclamation part of my voyage has started to feel like putting on a favorite pair of jeans that have become a little tight.

Growth is always a good sign, especially when there is the need to stretch old boundaries, including the self-imposed kind. Still, this is the type of unfurling that makes me feel scared and excited and vulnerable at the same time.

The deep-seated fear that comes up for me is: Am I enough? As in, in this case, if I change and start to deviate from what people have gotten used to expecting from me here, will I—just me—be enough for you, my blogging community, to keep coming back for more? There’s only one way to find out.

The other day, my friend Maria Badiei, who is both an artist and healer, gifted me with a painting she’d made several years ago. We call this artwork of hers “The Goddess of Enough.”

“The Goddess of Enough” by Maria Badiei

The female figure in the center looks very much like what I once imagined how a deity with that name might look. At the time, I desperately needed the reminder that no matter what happens or doesn’t happen in life, I, Diahann Reyes, am enough— as opposed to my lifelong, polar opposite worries of either being  “too much” or “not enough.” Both tend to stop me dead in my tracks.

I thought the Goddess of Enough only lived in my imagination until I saw Maria’s work and realized that she has seen her, too. The painting now hangs in my living room. To me, this image shows a woman birthing all sorts of possibilities in her life because she knows her own enoughness.

I am enough. I am enough. I am enough. These three words, which I say over and over to myself, have become my mantra.

So stay tuned for changes on this blog, which may happen sporadically or in waves—not unlike contractions—as Stories from the Belly slowly morphs into its next becoming.


A Night at the Movies, Part II: The Female Body On and Off Screen

The day after watching Cinderella (A Night at the Movies, Part I),  I went to see another film.  The Clouds of Sils Maria stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz. This wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed in terms of plot, but the acting by all three women is wonderful work. (For a review from someone who did like the flick, click here.)

I especially couldn’t stop watching Binoche. Not only because her performances are always a master class in acting but it was so refreshing to see a female movie star past ingénue age looking so comfortable baring her body on the big screen. That’s not a sight one gets to witness often, especially in American cinema.

CG Cinéma/Pallas Film/CAB Productions/Vortex Sutra Arte France Cinéma/Orange Studio/Radio Télévision Suisse http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2452254/

CG Cinéma/Pallas Film/CAB Productions/Vortex Sutra
Arte France Cinéma/Orange Studio/Radio Télévision Suisse
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2452254/

Binoche didn’t look like she’d toned up at the gym first before letting us see her naked in all her 51-year-old softness.I doubt she was any less beautiful or sensual than if she’d been all muscle.

There is a much needed healing of an old wound that happens when I see images of women that are more expansive than the limited ideas of beauty that I grew up with and surround me still—just like it feels like a balm for me when I see people of color playing significant parts on the big screen or as lead characters in literature. But it wasn’t just how Binoche looked. As I said, she would have been just as beautiful if she’d been all sculpted too. It was more that I felt coming from her body a sense of pleasure and shamelessness in fully inhabiting her own skin… much the way she fully embodies the parts she plays.

I used to think that I was at my best-looking, sexiest self when I managed to get my stomach to go flatter or the number on the scale went down. People’s reactions to me would affirm that—“You look so good! You lost weight!”

Lately, I can’t help but think that their responses were not necessarily because of how I looked but more because those were the times when I’d give myself permission to enjoy being in my body. The way I would carry myself, walk into a room, and interact with people changed, reflecting my own pleasure.

In her blog, Londin Angel Winters, the creator of Metaphysical Fitness and the Mindful Sculpt workout series writes, “Confidence, elegance, sexiness, grace, playfulness… these are all energies that any of us can embody in any moment we choose. Nothing needs to change about our bodies except that we need to stop dragging them behind us like forgotten luggage… we “come home” to them and a world of expression and beauty opens up to us immediately.”

There is a lot that has been written, by myself included, about how the unrealistic standards of beauty thrust at us by society, not to mention the barrage of photoshopped images in the media, make it hard to love our bodies or the way we look. But I doubt that these standards and images are going to go away until we make like Gandhi and “be the change that {we} wish to see in the world.”

Several years ago a friend of mine and I talked about starting a belly revolution. We were going to set up a website calling on women, including ourselves, to love the female belly in all its shapes and forms—round, lean, sculpted, stretch marked…. For me, my challenge has always been learning to love my stomach in its natural round shape and not just when its muscles are toned. (The latter has  happened once for six months in 44 years.) Yet the next day, while browsing through a bookstore, I bought a book on how to lose tummy fat.

I called my friend to back out of our new venture. There was no way I could lead any kind of body revolution unless I learned to love my own first. ” I think I’ll just wait until the rest of the world is on board and then join up,” I told her. “Maybe Madonna will start their own belly loving movement!”

There are definitely plenty of reasons to cheer when female celebrities act as role models by refusing to succumb to the pressures imposed by made up standards of female beauty. I too was inspired when, a few weeks ago, both Kelly Clarkson and Pink refused to let negative comments about their weight get them down.  I loved it when singer Janelle Monae told a fan, who had Tweeted that she needed to focus more on being sexy, less on being soulful: “I’m not for male consumption.” 

Yet ultimately, liberating ourselves from culture’s limiting standards is an inside job. I can find inspiration, courage even in others’ examples. But what I do with my body and how I choose to feel in it, show up in it out in the world, is up to me.


Between The Period and The Final Pause

I stopped bleeding once for a year when I was thirty. I had just gotten off the pill. Not bleeding for 360-plus days worried me although I’d heard that this could be a potential side effect of getting back into rhythm with my natural cycle. After that I decided that there would be no more birth control pill taking for me ever again.

The first time I ever bled was on a January 6—Three King’s Day, which honors the three wise men who brought gifts to Jesus at the manger. I was a month shy of turning 14. I felt as if the three Kings too had brought me a gift. I’d been waiting for my first period ever since reading Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. I’d even ordered my first period starter kit in the mail in anticipation of this moment.

I was as excited to start wearing Maxi Pads and pantiliners as I’d been to try on cut-off pants two years before when Madonna debuted the look on her first album. To bleed, to me, felt like an initiation.

But as I grew older bleeding became more of an inconvenience, that time of the month when I couldn’t wear white or go swimming, when I hopefully would not have an “accident.” I’m on my period became something to say to just my closest girlfriends and certainly not in public and especially not in front of men—as if there was something dirty about bleeding.

The Venus de Laussel. The 13 notches on her horn is said to represent the # of moons or menstrual cycles in a year. Wikipedia commons: http://tinyurl.com/qgwynqq

Ten years ago I went to a women’s retreat where we spent a whole afternoon talking about our periods. The facilitators constantly referred to the female bleeding time as a blessing—as holy even… there is the blood from the body of Christ, there is the blood from the body of Woman. If only we could shed the negative cultural conditioning around a woman’s period.

We talked about the connection and parallels between the female menstrual cycle and the moon. We deconstructed the term “premenstrual ‘syndrome’” –the latter half of the phrase bringing with it a bad wrap connotation, not unlike the way ‘bitchy’ has been dubbed upon a woman who is less willing to put up with crap during that time of the month.

And there is all this power–and not just the wondrous ability the period gives us to create a human life.

There is our heightened sensitivity and stronger hits of intuition. There are the ways in which our emotions, our truth, and our creativity are able to more easily pour out, like our blood, during those three to five days. We talked about giving ourselves permission to slow down on our periods, pay closer attention to what our bodies are telling us, and harness that extra boost of oomph to empower us rather than feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Getting our first period, the facilitators said, was  an initiation into our feminine power and an entering into the official tribe called Women. We talked about how so many women have forgotten or were never taught how to cultivate an intimate, empowered relationship with their menstrual blood.

I would go on to explore and deepen my connection to my own period when I joined a Moon Lodge in Venice, Ca. This was a modern day, real life version of the red tent where the women would gather in the bestselling novel of the same name by Anita Diamant.  Gathering once a month with the same group of women, together we honored the female bleeding time. (See my post, The Power of the Period).

That was several years ago.

Lately, I’m once again less than thrilled when I bleed— Damn period! My cycles have been heavier and more painful than they used to be and some days I just want to get in bed and stay there. It’s just my period not influenza, I tell myself, forcing myself out the door.

Sometimes my mind is even a little fuzzy and I forget the obvious. What’s the name of that hot guy again? The one who used to be on the TV show ER and has a mansion in Lake Cuomo? Having a period has started to feel like a curse, just as some ignorant person told me once when I was a girl.

At a recent get-together, a few of the older women who were there kept talking about how they were going through Perimenopause. Taking supplements… they said… I know a great holistic doctor.

What the what? Is that even a thing? How come I’ve never heard of it? Is that’s what is happening to me? When I Googled the word a number of articles popped up, including this one that describes some of the possible symptoms.

Perimenopause is the transition phase before menopause.

 I, of course, knew menopause would be coming one day. But apparently, first, there will be perimenopause.

Just saying the word makes me worry that I am officially making myself seem unsexy and dated. Which is why I must say it again: Perimenopause. Perimenopause. Perimenopause. I say the name to shed the embarrassment and shame.

I’m not sure whether I’m “officially” in perimenopause. Unlike getting one’s first period or no longer bleeding ever again there are no absolute symptoms. (And I’m loathe to do my usual, look up symptoms on Google and assume I have whatever an article says I do.) There is a test a doctor can give to verify.

Still. Goddamnit, just one more thing! As much as I’m learning to embrace getting older, letting go of all that comes with being younger still feels like a loss some days.

I am also curious and excited. Just as there has been potency in having a period—and from what I’ve read, the surge of power coursing through a woman’s body is the strongest yet in menopause—surely, there also must be gifts to receive during perimenopause.

I can’t wait to find out.

 

 


Baring the Female Breasts: Beyond Objectification

There is so much more to a woman’s relationship to her breasts than meets the naked eye. In this post, I am thrilled to have two of my favorite bloggers, KS of Kosher Adobo and Jennifer Berney of Goodnight Already, joining me as we pay homage to this most famous of feminine body parts.

Two Tahitian Women by Paul Gauguin http://tinyurl.com/ocvkvkc (Wikimedia Commons)

CHERRY

I am a junior in boarding school. Behind me is a “Save Sex” poster and a perfume ad: “Femme Fatale: When the female of the species is more dangerous than the male.” It’s the night before the first day of school. I am tugging on the neck of my shirt, admiring my bra strap. Every bra I owned just a year before was white or beige, looking more like bandages for my then AA breasts. But this 36B brassiere, red and lined with lace, which I bought with my mom, was bold, and I want to show it off. In a girls’ dorm after lights out was the safest place to share my joy. Check out my new bra, I say, lifting my shirt for N., who took me to Victoria’s Secret for the first time.  N. owns silky negligees and has more experience than I, but she delights with me, anyway. Having grown up with sisters, these female friendships are as natural as breathing. Beautiful, she says.

I loved the curves of my changing body.  It was expanding, taking up room, and it was exciting. I wanted to make out with the world – but I didn’t want anyone to put his hand up my flannel shirt. (Or maybe I did but I hadn’t fallen in love, yet, much less kissed a boy.)

Though I couldn’t express it, then, that first red brassiere became one of my earliest lessons in femininity and self-acceptance. When I think about who I was at sixteen, I imagine a woman, who would be ready for love and men someday, but, until then, she could keep whatever it was – her breasts, her secrets – her own. She would find beauty in her own reflection and in other women’s eyes.

KS is a textbook TCK who was born in the Philippines, raised in Saudi Arabia, and has lived in New England, USA, for the last twenty years. She writes about her intercultural marriage, diversity, and reproductive health on her blog Kosher Adobo.

 

THE USEFUL BREAST  

Once, at a crowded farmers market, an acquaintance of mine broke from our conversation to pull one of her breasts out of the top of her sundress and nurse her infant daughter. Though I tried not to react, I could not hide my alarm. I approved of public breastfeeding, but did she have to make it a spectacle?

As I prepared to welcome a baby, my own approach to public breastfeeding was to conceal as much as possible. I ordered nursing tank tops, nursing shirts, and a hand-made nursing cover—a small curtain that ties around a mother’s neck, designed to hide both her breasts and her baby. Why wouldn’t everyone use these? I wondered.

My son arrived, and our early days together included meandering walks where he would nap against me and wake up, hungry, the moment I settled down at a café. As it turned out, the nursing cover wasn’t so helpful; I actually needed to see my nipple to align it with my newborn’s mouth. And once he had latched I did not want to cover him with fabric. I wanted to see his eyes and his soft whorl of hair. The café was a friendly place, but still, I overheard strangers refer to me as “that woman over there who is breastfeeding.” It didn’t matter that my breast was hidden by my shirt—I was still a spectacle.

I wish that we could learn to recognize the utility of a breast in the same way we recognize the utility of a hand.  Bared in the bedroom, or half hidden beneath lace, of course breasts hold erotic allure. But just as I must sometimes remove my gloves to find my keys or write a check, I must sometimes lift my shirt and unhook my bra to perform the serious task of feeding my child.

Jennifer Berney lives in Olympia, Washington with her partner and two sons. She blogs at Goodnight Already

 

LOVING MY BREASTS

If my breasts could talk, they would tell me that they like it when I show a little cleavage. Give us a bit of sunlight, let that heat tickle our skin! I’m tenderer with my breasts than I used to be—unwilling to use them to be objectified; more eager to self-savor the sight of them, ripened and full as they peek over t-shirts or hang naked before the mirror. And underwire… my breasts love underwire!

At my last medical appointment, the doctor asked if I knew whether the breast cancer gene runs in the family—we do have a history. No, I replied. Well, maybe you should find out, she said.

My first thought was Angelina Jolie and her mastectomy, reconstruction—two procedures that, even with insurance, I cannot afford. But would I want to if I knew the odds were stacked against me? To lose my breasts, whether by choice or because I must, would be devastating. I’ll take my chances, I tell the doctor. Then again, maybe if I had children, like Angelina, I too would choose differently.

My breasts aren’t that sensitive when it comes to physical sensation—at least not like what you read in romance novels where a suck, a flick, a lick can elicit moans of ecstasy. When I was younger I would pretend all that, worried about what it might say about me if I didn’t make some noise.

These days, my breasts will settle for nothing less than real pleasure even if it means sometimes feeling nothing. Because my breasts, like the rest of me, are no longer afraid to demand tenderness… a little roughness…whatever they need. My breasts know that their worth doesn’t depend on looking good or putting on a show.

My breasts, with their ability to feed a life, are their own kind of superpower.

Diahann Reyes is a freelance writer and performer. She lives in Los Angeles and blogs at Stories from the Belly: A Blog About the Female Body and Its Appetites.

 


Turning My Sensuality On

Lately, I’ve been feeling disconnected from my own sensuality and needing a way to plug back into that part of myself. I figured what better way to re-spark that inner connection than to take a sensual movement class.

I didn’t tell my boyfriend that I was going because I needed this experience to be just for me. We’ve been living together for a few months now, and while I love him truly, madly, and deeply, I suspect that being with him is the reason that I’ve shut down my connection to my sensuality.

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