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decision to feature more types of women in its swimsuit issue a move that genuinely liberates women and girls from the outdated notions of beauty?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.
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!
As a girl on Halloween, I always dressed up as a gypsy fortune-teller. When I grew older, I swapped out my fortune-teller costume for a black gown and a pointed hat so I could play dress-up as a witch.
On the surface the reasons were convenience and vanity. While a lot of my friends wanted to bring out their ghoulish selves for the night, I wanted to be all dolled up. Putting on bangles and dangly earrings and wearing a long flowing skirt with a scarf over my head made me feel pretty, not to mention that all I had to do was raid my mother’s jewelry box for the accessories.
Playing witch was easy enough, too. The local toy store packaged the whole outfit in a bag. The broom came from my cleaning closet. And while most portrayals of witches have them looking decrepit with deformed noses, I put on lipstick, blush, and eyeshadow like I was going out on the town.
Looking back, I realize that while most people were putting on costumes to dress up as scary creatures or famous characters, I was using the occasion to go out in public dressed up as myself.
I know. I’m not a gypsy and I don’t tell fortunes. I can’t fly on a broomstick or cast any kind of spell. Although I sure would like to—fly, that is. (Unfortunately, witches have gotten a bad, inaccurate rap that led to millions of women getting burned at the stake a few hundred years ago. For more on that go to Witch Burning = Misogyny on BroadBlogs.)
To me, the fortune-teller and the witch are archetypes of the wild woman. The untamed woman that refuses to conform to society’s restrictive ideas of how females should behave. The woman who is in touch with her inner knowing and moves to her own rhythms and saturates in her own desires. A woman who knows her own power and embraces her personal magic.
Dressing up as witch and fortune-teller allowed me to tap into my own wild woman that I wasn’t even aware existed within me.
I do now. I may not be able to see the future or boil a potion, but I do brew up stories with words. I may not have supernatural powers, but I know I have real power.
I also like to think of myself as rather witchy in an Elphaba from the Broadway musical Wicked kind of way. Her song, Defying Gravity, has become one of my anthems.
And I’d bet that there are many others who emerge on Halloween dressed up as their super alter egos.
A few days ago on Facebook, actress Alyssa Milano posted a photo from last year. In it she is breastfeeding her baby and dressed as Wonder Woman. Accompanying the image is the hashtag #normalizebreastfeeding.
Milano may be dressed up in costume, but she is a woman who has birthed and is nourishing a human life with her own body. What could be more Wonder Woman-like than that?
Happy Hallows to all!
May your witchy or superhero self come out to dance under the light of the moon tonight and every night.
“Thank you, Goddess.” That’s not something you hear said a lot out in the mainstream, especially on national television. But when Jill Solloway, the creator of the show Transparent, got onstage to accept the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series last week, those were the first words out of her mouth.
“Thank you, Goddess,” Solloway said again. I held my breath. What would everyone’s reaction be?
I discovered “The Goddess” about twelve years ago in an all women’s movement class. My friend who had recommended the class didn’t mention that it was a Goddess circle. If she had, I’m not sure I would have gone.
Growing up Catholic and Filipina, I was taught to believe that there was just the one God. He was a White guy in a long gown. He had shaggy hair and a beard.
The only reason I even signed up for the class was because my friend had told me that because of this particular movement practice her days had turned orgasmic. Orgasmic? What did she even mean? Was she walking around having orgasms all day? Did she have orgasms even when she was stuck in traffic? Was she having an orgasm right now? Surely she was being metaphorical. Either way, I thought, I’ve got to have me some of that.
That first night, it became clear that this wasn’t a class about orgasms. Instead, something else happened.
As I moved in my body and witnessed other women do the same, I felt the presence of God in the room. Only, he wasn’t a man, she was a woman. And her name was Goddess.
That my God might actually be female and not male should have come as a huge shock except that it made absolute sense—and not just in my head but in every cell of my being. No wonder I’d never quite resonated with the God I grew up with—like a relative you have nothing in common except for your bloodline.
That God was this male figure up there, remote and outside of me. With the Goddess, I didn’t need to wait to get to heaven to find out if she was real. I could see her everywhere in the flesh now, as the Earth (Mother). I could feel her in my body, moving through me as feminine energy. By recognizing that the Holy could also be female, I was able to see that women, and not just men, are sacred too.
Even though my spiritual conversion from God to Goddess was instant, this wasn’t news I was dying to advertise outside my circle of close friends and family. What if people think I’m too “out there” spiritually and stop wanting to know me? What if I’m blackballed by the journalism industry, the acting industry, any industry? Worse yet, what if I don’t get a date with a guy ever again?
My fears about what could happen if I were to publicly admit that I am a woman who worships the Goddess may be particular to me, but they do not exist in a vacuum. I spoke with Tabby Biddle, women’s rights advocate and author of Find Your Voice: A Woman’s Call to Action. She said:
“Over the years women have been persecuted for speaking their truth and being ‘different’ than men. Women have been burned at the stake. Stoned to death. Raped and murdered. While witch burnings don’t happen today, stonings do, and so do rape and death threats. The Goddess presents a shift in orientation from the male culture that we all have grown up in. This direct challenge to the patriarchal status quo is a game changer. It is scary for a woman to say, ‘I stand for and with the Goddess.’ She temporarily has to re-live the barbaric acts taken against women over the centuries since the onset of patriarchy. The memories of these acts live in her body. In her blood. In our collective consciousness. Who will support me? Will history repeat itself? These fears are real.”
Which is why I reacted the way I did when I heard Solloway mention the Goddess in her speech. What is going to happen to her?
In many parts of the world, including certain communities in the United States, to acknowledge the existence of a female God is still forbidden.
The day after the Emmys, New York Magazine listed Solloway’s thanking of the Goddess as one of the feminist highlights of the event. Twitter and the media mostly lauded Solloway for her creative work and continued advocacy for transgender equality. As Biddle noted, “I think there is more of an open-mindedness to the term [Goddess] now that women’s equality and ending gender discrimination are more at the forefront of the cultural conversation.”
Here, on Stories from the Belly, I’ve alluded to the Goddess—written about her even (or, rather, written around my relationship with her). But to admit outright that the Goddess is the one to whom I pray, the one I sit before at my altar, feels like I’m risking a lot.
Hearing Solloway publicly acknowledge the Goddess makes me want to take that risk.
The only reason this blog even exists is because I discovered the Goddess all those years ago. It was then that I began to own my worth as a woman. It was then that I began to recognize that other women are my allies and not the competition. It was then that that I began to understand that my body really is a temple—and it belongs solely to me.
Thank you, Goddess.
**Spoiler Alert if you haven’t seen the movie yet.
I walked out of the theater after watching Magic Mike XXL with a huge smile on my face and it wasn’t just because Channing Tatum and his crew know how to dance sexy while wearing minimal clothing. Having a mainstream summer movie cater to my female gaze was a refreshing experience. But even more exciting were the other stories playing out within the subtext of this buddy road trip flick.
This time around, you learn there is more to the other guys than their hot bodies dancing for cash. Matt Bomer’s Ken is an aspiring actor and a Reiki healer. Adam Rodriguez’s Tito makes artisanal frozen yogurt and is trying to launch a successful dessert truck business. Kevin Nash’s Tarzan is some kind of artist-magician.
And unlike in the original film, where the guys’ stripper routines were primarily choreographed to get women to open up their wallets, Mike and his friends are focused on creating performances in which they channel their passions and embody their authentic selves. Gone are the hot fireman, sexy cop, and other characters, which allude to females wanting to be rescued, that typically populate male stripper bars and bachelorette parties. Instead, there is the gourmet dessert maker who wants to satisfy more than your sweet tooth and the hunky lover who will help you make all of your fantasies in the bedroom a reality.
These guys, led by Tatum’s Mike, are not stereotypes of the dudes you typically see in buddy bonding movies and not just because they are male entertainers. No one is trying to score the most chicks or kill anyone or rob a bank. No one is trying to out dude the others, whatever that even means. If anything, they openly support and love each other. Yet as actor Joe Manganiello, who plays Big Dick Ritchie, said in a recent interview, in Magic Mike XXL the men are very much in their masculinity and maleness.
And the women are not just accessories to the male leads. Three of the female characters, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, Andy McDowell, and Elizabeth Banks, are actresses over 40. McDowell is 57. The women they play are confident, in charge of their lives/careers, and know who they are and what they want.
Their characters have not shrunken into invisibility because they are no longer young in years. Time and experience have allowed them to evolve into the most empowered versions of themselves yet. These three are who Mike and his friends turn to for help in realizing their dreams of dancing one last time at the Myrtle Beach Stripper Convention.
One of the many facets that I appreciate about comedian Amy Schumer’s work is that she shines a light not only on the cultural conditioning that keeps women in restricted place, but also she exposes the misogyny that many of us have internalized from living in a patriarchal society. As some of her sketches intimate—women and girls have been known to do as good a job as anyone of objectifying, suppressing, or disempowering themselves.
Schumer’s sketch “I’m Sorry” from this latest season is one example. In it, a group of female experts at a conference spend an entire panel discussion apologizing for pretty much anything and everything. (Video could not be embedded, so please click on the New York Magazine link):
It’s the expert, the one who sustains burns after someone accidentally spills hot coffee on her, who really got to me. She is writhing on the floor, blood and guts spurting out of her now severed legs. Yet none of that stops her from apologizing for the disruption. Meantime, the other female experts are uttering their own apologies for no reason, over and over.
The sketch made me think of the summer I interned at CBS News in Washington DC. As I stood with a camera crew outside the US Supreme Court in record temperatures and severe humidity, I started to faint.
My lips went clammy, I felt like I was being pulled into a wind tunnel, and it was all I could do not to lose consciousness. I dropped to my knees. “Sorry!” I exclaimed to the crew.
I’d been assigned the job of standing in front of the camera until the CBS reporter arrived. From the ground I raised my arms over my head so that at least my hands were still visible in the shot. “I’m so so so sorry!” I kept saying to anyone who would listen.
But it’s not just that one incident. I can think of hundreds of times in my life when I’ve apologized, either overtly or covertly—not even aware that was what I was doing—for doing nothing more than taking up time and space in this world.
Yet isn’t that what so many women have been taught? As feminist critic Soraya L. Chemaly wrote in an article for Role Reboot in 2013, girls are trained starting at a young age to “be as small as possible and we will love you more.” The title of her piece: Our Society Urges Girls To Take Up Less Space And Boys To Take Up More, And It Needs To Stop.
Be skinnier, weigh less, speak softer, don’t toot your own horn, the list of ways to minimize the self goes on—all acts of mea culpa for taking up space. (Full disclosure: I’ve tried many of those tactics and I’ve never found the “we will love you more” part to be the case. The only people who’ve appreciated my efforts are those who’ve also been taught to keep small—and assholes. )
Which is another reason I’ve officially become a Schumer fan. She allows herself to take up space. She would have to be willing. Otherwise, there is no way she could create a show named after her and star in it or write a screenplay for a movie, Trainwreck, and star in it.
Every time Schumer performs her feminist, owning-her-sexuality stand-up act, she is taking up space and permitting herself and her work to take center stage. As she said, when accepting the Trailblazer Award from Glamour magazine earlier this month, “I’m not going to apologize for who I am.” Allowing others to honor you for what you do also requires a willingness to take up space.
Watching Schumer’s show reminds me that eradicating misogyny from the world is as much an inside job as it is a fight to be won out there. And when we slowly but surely identify and kick out the sexist that lives within, we are freeing not just ourselves but also giving others permission to do the same.
With no more apologies, we take up space in the world—that is, until the next time we run into someone who pays us a compliment:
The other day I printed out a list of search words that people have used, landing them on my blog. Aside from the expected—find my sensuality, stories of women, big round belly, female breast stories, what happened to Barbie’s Skipper—some other interesting terms come up, including:
- Forward facing vagina pics
- Filipino girls for pleasure
- Her face as she climaxes
- Girl pleasures herself with her tummy out
- Beautiful lady pushing beer bottle in vagina
Based on these terms I suspect that there are people searching for pornography who are finding Stories from the Belly instead.
This isn’t the first time my work has been mistaken on the surface for pornography. Several years ago I wrote a chapbook of poetry and prose that I gave to family and friends. When I asked an uncle what he thought of my work, he said, “I didn’t finish it because I don’t read porn.”
Porn? I thought. Could he and I be talking about the same chapbook?
The collection had come out of a writing class in which we were told to put together what we’d written into self-published form. As someone who suffered from writer’s block for years, I was thrilled to have generated anything at all.
My poems and short essays covered a range of topics—from a poem fantasizing about life as the real Laura Ingalls Wilder to one about how I always tried to be whatever the man in my life needed instead of just being myself. There are also references throughout alluding to sexual and sensual experiences. But did that instantly qualify my work as porn?
“Are you sure that you are referring to my chapbook?” I said.
“Yes.” He replied. “There is no way I will read the whole thing. It goes against my values.”
His response devastated me. Could my work be that offensive? And how could I be making porn and not even know it? I don’t even like pornography because of how it objectifies women and turns sex into exaggerated acts of performance.
If my uncle was right, then surely the world would be a better place without me as a writer pushing that type of material out into the planet.
That night, I went online and got on Merriam Webster.com to look up the word:
Pornography “noun por·nog·ra·phy \-fē\: movies, pictures, magazines, etc., that show or describe naked people or sex in a very open and direct way in order to cause sexual excitement.
Is that what I had done? I went through every page of my chapbook looking for explicit descriptions of sex or naked people but couldn’t find any. Granted, in one poem there is a line about how I kissed a different boy every day my freshman year in college. In another poem, I write about having sex with a lover under a mango tree (although—full disclosure—that never happened. I just liked the imagery that the words evoked).
But were sentences like that enough to cause sexual excitement in anyone? And even if they did—was that my fault? And what would be wrong with that anyways? And If I were to ever describe a sexual experience in detail, would that automatically make it pornographic?
My uncle’s reaction to my work played on my fears that my writing was not fit for public consumption. I worried that he was right and I lacked the barometer for knowing the difference between the appropriate and the profane. I even considered placing an X-rated label on the cover of my chapbook as a warning.
In The Uses of the Erotic, feminist and author Audre Lorde wrote about how people often mistake the erotic for the pornographic: “The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation.” When in reality, she explained, the erotic is “the assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”
For me, that first chapbook was the re-accessing of my creative force that I’d stopped up for so long. One of the reasons that I had subconsciously blocked myself as a writer was because I was so afraid that if I did write from my depths, one particular story would come rising to the surface, forcing me to deal with its truth—and that is exactly what happened. It was the story about how I was sexually abused when I was a child. And so began the process of me taking back my voice, my creativity, my body, and my sexuality as my own as I exorcised what was not mine—in reclamation of my feminine erotic nature.
Years later, I have a stronger sense of what my work is and what it is not. But that isn’t to say that I sometimes still don’t get paranoid and worry.
When I first launched this blog, knowing some of the topics I was dying to tackle, the old fears came up. For about five minutes, I literally marked my site as X-rated to warn unsuspecting people away from its contents—and then I decided to do as Lorde suggested and stop misnaming the erotic. No more using it to shame women, including me.
Still, with all the confusion that exists between the erotic and the pornographic, I shouldn’t be surprised that when some people go searching for porn they wind up here. What must the reader searching for “girls allow snake to pass through the vagina” think about my posts? Or the reader wanting to see “boyfriend shrinks and goes into girlfriend’s womb.” I wonder.
Imagining the startled, WTF expression on their faces makes me smile.