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decision to feature more types of women in its swimsuit issue a move that genuinely liberates women and girls from the outdated notions of beauty?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.
“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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When women come together
Their bodies can reverberate
Creating a rich stew
Of yummy nourishment
I’m floating in a warm pool surrounded by women. Eyes are closed. Hands gently lap the water. Movements are languid, barely making ripples. One woman sits underwater, as if suspended. Above the surface, her breath rises, forming bubbles.
We look like we are hibernating, which in a way we are. This is, after all, a retreat.
It’s just us ladies, so no pressure to pull in one’s tummy to create the illusion of flatness. No need to wear oversize t-shirts to hide soft upper arms or round thighs or skinny hips. No need to walk sexy or look hot. Each of us is resting, saturating in what it feels like to fully inhabit our own skin. We are hiding nothing.
I saw a woman at the bank the other day. A bank teller. She had the same kind of liver spots on her face that my grandmother used to have, right on the side of her cheeks by her eyes. She had laugh lines like my grandmother did. The shape of her face was almost exactly like hers. So was the texture of her skin. I wondered if the woman’s skin, like my grandmother’s skin, is what old lady Filipina skin is supposed to look like… like a coconut but not so hard, smooth even though it looks rough.
Seeing this woman was like looking at grandmother again, as if she were standing in front of me even though it wasn’t really her. The teller also had drawn in eyebrows, except my grandmother never used black eyeliner to pencil in her eyebrows. She always used a brown pencil. (Although when my grandmother was in her seventies once, she drew one of her eyebrows in blue because she was in a hurry and didn’t notice. When my sister pointed it out hours later my grandmother laughed so hard that she had to put her hand over her mouth to keep the rest of her laughter from spilling out all over the floor.)
I wanted to touch this bank teller’s face. I wanted to press my face next to hers and inhale deep to see if she smelled like Pond’s cold cream and Johnson’s baby powder, just like my grandmother. If I could have stood in front of the teller window longer I would have looked at her hands to see if they were wrinkled in the same places where my grandmother’s fingers had been wrinkled too.