Are the Fears about Sexualization Misplaced?

This week, I have a piece up at Role/Reboot: The Real Problem with Sexualization Isn’t Victoria’s Secret. Excerpt:

Sexualization is a very real problem. The backlash against it, however, can lead to the pathologizing of any and all interest in beauty, fashion, or traditionally feminine sports like cheer, dance, gymnastics, and figure skating. In the rush to make sure that girls have role models who aren’t primarily concerned with beauty, we risk labeling those girls who are interested in cultivating their appearance as either frivolous or victimized. When the APA calls for a culture that rewards accomplishments “based on young people’s abilities and character rather than on their appearance” (emphasis mine), they perpetuate a frustratingly false dichotomy. It’s the modern iteration of the lie that a girl can’t be both pretty and smart: In this new paradigm, you can’t care about your looks and be empowered at the same time. Achieving the latter means letting go (or pretending to let go) of any interest in beauty and sexiness.

Much of the anxiety about sexualization is really about outsourcing adult men’s self-control to the bodies of young girls. The real sexualizers aren’t the marketers, but the older boys and men who are unwilling to distinguish grown women from children. Men aren’t nearly as weak, stupid, or easily deceived as we like to imagine. We fret about sexualization because we fret that grown men will, inevitably, see a short skirt, or a t-shirt with a provocative message, as an invitation—even on the body of a 12-year-old. That sells men woefully short. It’s not an overask—really, it isn’t—to expect adult men to see a 14-year-old in heels and makeup as still a child. The problem is less girls’ self-objectification and more adult men’s refusal to stop using that supposed self-objectification as an excuse to be predatory creepers.

On Modesty and Male Weakness: “Pegging” and Feminism at Jezebel

I had two posts up at Jezebel this week:

Hot Girls in Tight Clothes Do Not Keep Boys From Learning Excerpt:

That modesty culture places an unreasonable burden on girls is undeniable. What gets missed is that it also sets men up for a lifetime of believing that they aren’t responsible for their own sexual urges. Boys don’t need to be protected from their own horniness (any attempt to provide that protection will end in failure), they need tools to learn to manage the intensely powerful feelings that they’re having. Teenage lust is a biological reality, but the socially-constructed assumption that it is only truly overwhelming for boys is destructive in two ways. It shames girls for being horny (because sexual desire is framed as exclusively masculine) and it teaches boys that they are at the mercy of urges they can’t be reasonable expected to control. What boys need, and aren’t getting, is the message that lust and learning aren’t mutually exclusive experiences.

If You Want a More Thoughtful Boyfriend, Try Pegging Him (Trigger Warning for, um, vulgar language) Excerpt:

The payoff for clearing those hurdles, Glickman says, is nothing less than the radical transformation of heterosexual sex. In 2011, Glickman wrote a column entitled “How Pegging Can Save the World,” arguing that no other erotic experience a man can undergo can create greater empathy with women than being penetrated by his partner. “For men who have never been on the receiving side of penetration, sex is something that happens outside the body. And when sex is external to your body, it can be easier to do when you have a headache or you’re not quite in the mood. A lot of men discover than when sex is about catching rather than pitching, their mood, their emotions, and their connection to a partner can often have a bigger influence on what they want to do and how it feels.” Men, Glickman and Emirzian suggest optimistically, will be a lot less likely to rush foreplay once they’ve experienced how long it takes to relax sufficiently in order to comfortably take a dildo (or other sex toy) in the ass.

For women, Glickman and Emirzian write, the experience of pegging a man can be equally revelatory, suggesting that “many women who use strap-on dildos discover how much work, responsibility, and (sometimes) power can be part of fucking someone.” It’s intellectually reckless to impose political meanings onto private acts, but it seems telling that in an “End of Men” era where exhausted and stressed-out women already are shouldering so much more “work” and “responsibility” than ever before, those burdens are extended — in a novel way — to the bedroom as well.

Food, faith, and fashion: an article in the Fuller Semi

A few weeks ago, I wrote a short piece for Relevant, a Christian magazine, on Beauty and Sexuality. The same day it went up, the editor of Fuller Theological Seminary’s student magazine asked me for a follow-up piece for their spring special issue on faith and fashion. The issue went up yesterday, and my offering is here: Fashion and Food. Excerpt:

One basic truth that can’t be repeated often enough: created things can have more than one purpose. The tongue, for example: it exists to taste, to speak, and to prevent us from choking. It can also be used in kissing, or in lovemaking to give pleasure to another human being. It would be silly to rank those capabilities in any sort of hierarchical order. (Would “preventing choking” rank above or below “tasting for spoiled food”?)

What’s true of body parts is true of what we use to fuel that body. Yes, food keeps us alive. But it also is the greatest source of consistent physical pleasure that many of us will ever know; for most it is our first and last delight. The preparing and eating of meals can turn food itself into a spiritual glue that bonds communities together. And of course, food is a means of taking God into ourselves, as Jesus reminds us at the last supper. Food is many things.

So too with clothing. It exists to cover our nakedness, to keep us warm, to protect us from the rays of the sun. Uniforms of one kind or another help us distinguish certain professions or ceremonial participants: police officers, flight attendants, brides. Where clothing becomes fashion, however, is when garments move beyond the utilitarian need for comfort (or occupation signaling) and towards the provision of visual delight. The delight in gorgeous clothes and the body inside them is as natural as the delight in the taste of truly delicious food. Like anything truly beautiful, the purpose is to draw attention to a divine gift.

Please check out the other great articles at The Semi as well!

I’ll note that I’m particularly pleased to have been asked to be part of this issue. Fuller Seminary is near and dear to my heart. For many years, I lived walking distance from its flagship Pasadena campus. My most recent ex-wife got her Ph.D. from Fuller while she and I were wed. And Fuller’s long-time president, the great theologian and philosopher Richard Mouw, was my father’s very first graduate student some fifty years ago.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written for explicitly Christian audiences in explicitly Christian spaces, and it’s been a refreshing experience indeed. My appearance at Relevant was not without controversy. In that light in particular, I’m touched to have the continued support of the Fuller community and of the Relevant editorial staff.

Perfect Little Bitches? Two links

Two new columns in the last 24 hours.

This week’s Genderal Interest piece at Jezebel looks at the recent Canadian study of college-aged women and their reactions to scantily-clad peers: Short Skirts Magically Turn Women Into Bitches. Excerpt:

Bitchiness (at least as defined by this study) is rooted in the same set of beliefs as the requirement in other parts of the world where women wear burqas. We demand that women cover up to protect men from temptation because we don’t believe that men are capable of self-control. We also pressure women to cover up as a sign of solidarity with other women; modesty is, as this research reminds us, promoted as currency for buying female friendship. By that calculus, revealing clothing gets interpreted as a sign of hostility towards other women. The “slut” is hated not just because she attracts male attention, but because she refuses to play by the “rules” that are supposed to keep women safe.

It’s not news that women are socialized to be competitive with each other. It’s not news that, as my students remind me, sisterhood is easier in winter. And it will continue to be the same old news until we name the real root of the problem: our collective refusal to believe that men are capable of being strong, responsible, reliable adults.

And at Healthy is the New Skinny, I’ve got a little comment about the one word I heard over and over again during a certain TV broadcast Tuesday night. Check out The Victoria’s Secret Show and Perfectionism. Excerpt:

But even as we broaden our definition of what is beautiful, our definition of perfection remains as unattainably narrow as ever. As the tweets and the Tumblr posts and the Facebook status updates made heartbreakingly clear Tuesday night, you can be healthy and beautiful at almost any size – but true “perfection” requires skinniness. As one commenter put it “Not every thin girl is perfect, but every perfect girl is thin.”

We all want to be inspired by what we see. But there’s a huge difference between encouraging the healthy pursuit of beauty and celebrating perfectionism. Girls today are under more academic, financial, and emotional pressure than ever before. A big part of the problem is that increasingly, role models (and make no mistake, fashion models are role models) aren’t admired merely for their looks or their achievements. They’re admired for their perfection, and for the suffering they may have endured to achieve it.

Pushing Back Against the Real/Fake Trope

Today’s Genderal Interest column at Jezebel: Real Women Have… Bodies. It begins:

Last week, the UK lingerie chain Ann Summers launched a new campaign using what the company claims are “real women” from across England as its models. Theirs is the latest example of authenticity advertising, a trend that dates back to 2004, when Dove launched its iconic “Real Beauty” campaign. In the 21st century, “realness” is now a marketing mainstay. But it’s also become a divisive concept, as those who fall short of what’s “real” are inevitably derided as “fake.”

It’s been nearly a decade since the release of 2002’s Real Women Have Curves, the film that made America Ferrera a star and served as likely inspiration for what Dove would soon develop. As charming as the movie was, the darker implication of the phrase was hard to miss: if real women have curves, then perhaps women who don’t are “less real.” A new double-bind for women was born: those who met the skinny ideal could now be labeled “unreal,” and those who were still shamed for being heavy were now encouraged to take some sort of comfort in being more “legitimate” than their slender sisters. As a result, the real/fake dichotomy became as common — and in some ways, as toxic — as the old virgin/whore dynamic.

Read the whole thing.

Sexy Halloween Costumes Don’t Cause Rape

A Happy Halloween (and Reformation Day) to all. My holiday column is up a day earlier than usual: Sexy Halloween Costumes for Girls Don’t Cause Rape. A little excerpt:

…those of us who advocate for girls aren’t primarily concerned that girls are showing too much skin. Rather, the problem lies in the compulsory sexualization that is so much a part of today’s Halloween celebrations for teens. A lot of us are more upset by the absence of options than by the absence of fabric; we know that pressuring girls to act sexy is not the same thing as encouraging them to develop a healthy, vibrant sexuality that they themselves own. I don’t have a problem with “sexy bar wench” costumes; I have a problem when those sorts of costumes are the only ones young women are expected or encouraged to wear.

Perfectly Pink

My post on Friday at Healthy is the New Skinny looked at the controversy over pink. Excerpt:

It’s only been in the last fifty or sixty years that the strong association between pink and femininity has taken root. Pink has become the commercialized way of signifying something associated with women: think pink ribbons for breast cancer, or the marketing term for selling something to women that was once sold mainly to men: “pink it and shrink it.”

As a result of all that marketing, many girls grow to dislike pink intensely, often because it’s been foisted onto them from the time they were very young. Others hate it because they associate it with a set of limitations that they’re trying to escape. “”I call it the pink prison”, my student Kailee says; “I feel like everytime I put on pink I’m being put in a box that forces me to behave a certain way. Like when I wear pink, my voice gets softer and I don’t get to express myself.”

But as many young women can attest, pink is more complicated than that…

I also wrote about pink back in February 2009.

A More Inclusive Spectrum of Beauty: Thinking about Plus-Size Modeling and the American Apparel Contest

Note: This is my personal post on the American Apparel controversy. For the “official editorial” I penned for Healthy is the New Skinny on the story, go here.

American Apparel’s “XL Model Contest” has concluded, and we await the company’s announcement of a winner. As of the close of voting last week, the leading contestant for the spot as AA’s first plus-size model was Nancy Upton, whose photo entries seemed cleverly designed to satirize the sexualized, over-exposed aesthetic for which the Los Angeles-based clothing company is notorious. (The CEO of American Apparel, Dov Charney, has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment.)

While we wait to find out if Upton will be declared the winner, the media coverage of the contest (and the guerrilla campaign to undermine its intent) has been intense. Lost in the discussion, however, are the voices of professional plus-size models — all of whom had long been openly spurned by American Apparel – at least until the sudden contest offer. (It’s not much of an offer, of course: just a trip to L.A. and a photoshoot. No guarantee of an actual contract.)

(As co-founder of the Perfectly Unperfected Project and a director of the Healthy is the New Skinny program I work closely with the plus-size modeling community. I serve as an adviser to Natural Models LA, a new agency that not only represents straight-size and plus-size models but also pushes for more opportunities for “talent” in the industry’s “no woman’s land” — too small for plus, too “big” for straight-size. Natural just put out a new promo video featuring several of our L.A. based team members.)

Many professional plus-size models did make the decision to enter the contest, despite the fat-shaming language AA chose to use in their promotions (like invitations to send in photos of “you and your junk”). As of the close of the contest, two good friends of the Healthy is the New Skinny campaign, Erin Tinsley and Hillary Officer, were trailing just behind Upton. Unlike the apparent winner, Tinsley and Officer took the contest seriously, overcoming real misgivings about American Apparel’s deserved reputation in order to enter.

Why would professional plus-size models enter a contest in which there’s little chance of a payout? For publicity, sure, but also because the plus-size modeling community is eager to expose the American (and global) public to a more inclusive spectrum of what is beautiful. In an industry where so many models are unhealthily thin (though to be fair, not every size two model is unhealthy), plus-size models want to offer a vision that is both more attainable and more realistic while still retaining glamor.

But this attempt to broaden the spectrum of beauty regularly meets with ridicule, anger, and pushback. The ridicule comes from some of the more reactionary wings of the industry, including the organizers of last year’s New York Fashion Week who told plus-size denim designer Jessica Svoboda that they “didn’t want to see a bunch of elephants stomping on our runway.” The anger comes, with no small degree of justification, from many women who are horrified that plus-size models are still so, well, small. Working with Healthy is the New Skinny, I often hear comments like this: “This makes me feel so bad. I’m a size 18 and if even the larger plus-size models are smaller than me, what does that make me? A whale?” Or: “I expect plus-size models to represent real women and girls. We all know that high fashion models are much thinner than normal, and that they have unattainable bodies for most of us. But plus-size models should look more like the average. If size 8 or even 10 is plus-size, that’s just wrong.”

And the pushback comes from those who are critical of the notion that the modeling industry can be redeemed. For many of my feminist allies, for example, broadening the beauty standard is putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. Meghan Murphy writes this week:

While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don’t think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying ‘curvaceous bods’. I mean, it’s not as though bigger women aren’t objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It’s not as though bigger women aren’t raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don’t think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it)…

In other words, the fashion and modeling industries are so fundamentally at odds with women’s real liberation and happiness that any attempt to try to transform these businesses will either meet with failure or be slickly co-opted. Best not to try.

I’ve never liked American Apparel’s clothing, and honestly, find Dov Charney to be the creep de résistance of the rag trade. I don’t like the way the XL campaign was promoted, and I admit to admiring the clever and creative way in which Nancy Upton satirized the whole process. Despite that, I also stand in strong support of the individual professionals like Erin and Hillary who entered the contest seriously. Modeling is, after all, a profession like any other; it requires skill as well as beauty. (AA would have done best to reach out directly to an agency that books plus-size models.)

I also remain passionately committed to the principle of incremental transformation. Organizational or personal change happens through a combination of external pressure and internal reflection. The campaigns I’m involved in work both within and without the modeling and fashion industries, pushing relentlessly, creatively, and to some, frustratingly gradually for a more inclusive, healthier, more sustainable (and attainable) vision of beauty. To the extent that the conversation around the AA campaign moves us closer to achieving that vision by broadening opportunities for women to model outside of the traditional size-range, this is real progress.

An Open Letter to a Sixteen Year-old Girl: “Your Body is Never the Problem”

Though I originally published this piece at Scarleteen, Healthy is the New Skinny reprints today my Letter to a Teenage Girl. Excerpt:

It’s important too to note that however much skin you are revealing, you are never responsible for another person’s inappropriate behavior. Save for the blind, we are all visual people. We notice each other. There is no right not to be seen. But there is a right not to be stared at with a penetrating gaze of the sort that makes you feel deeply uncomfortable. While it may seem that you get those leers more often when you’re showing more skin, you’ve probably noticed that you get those creepy stares at other times as well. And the key thing you need to know is that men can control their eyes — they really can — and women can control their judgment. Your body is not so powerful that it can drive others to distraction. (And yes, if we’re honest, sometimes we wish that our bodies were that powerful, particularly if it meant drawing the attention of someone to whom we are attracted!) If some men choose to be distracted by you, that is their choice, a decision for which they (not you) are solely responsible. No matter what anyone tells you, you need to remember that.

It is not inconsistent to want to be seen and not be stared at. You know the difference, I suspect, between an “appreciative look” (which can feel very validating) and the “penetrating stare” that leaves you feeling like crawling into a hole. While people are not required to give you the former, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to avoid giving you the latter. It’s also not unreasonable to want guys your age to be interested in you, and want the creepy old ones to leave you alone. Remember, it’s not hypocrisy or naïveté on your part to dress in a way that you hope will get you that positive attention you want without also bringing the negative attention you fear and loathe.

Booty shorts and body image: sexualization in high school sports

My Thursday column at Healthy is the New Skinny looks at the problem of creeping sexualization in high school girls’ sports:

Take a look through an old high school yearbook from the 1970s. You’ll see the volleyball players with some fairly short shorts – and the guys on the basketball team with shorts that may well be even shorter. The tops are mostly loose fitting; the outfits are comfortable and practical.

But take a look at what high school volleyball players are wearing today – and at what the boys on the basketball team have on! Over the past two decades, boys’ shorts have gotten dramatically longer and their uniforms much more concealing, all without any sacrifice of athletic performance. But even as more and more opportunities are emerging for girls to play sports, the uniforms that they’re required to wear (particularly in sports like track and volleyball) have become tighter and more revealing.

The issue isn’t improved performance. In high school volleyball, it’s hard to argue that French-cut briefs lead to a dramatic step up in anything other than attendance at games. (Many women I interviewed for this piece report that the number of people showing up for volleyball matches or track events rise when schools begin to require skimpier uniforms). The issue is how these uniforms and the expectations that come with them affect young women’s self-esteem.

Read the whole thing.