June 13, 2008

Owning our bodies’ representation

Posted in body politics, double standards, exnomination, objectification, phallocentrism, privacy, representation, sexual politics at 12:00 pm by LB

This post from Ms. Naughty (blog NSFW) got me thinking. She wrote a post about the Topfree Equal Rights Association, and their argument that it should be legal for women to bare their breasts in public since men can: that not being able to amounts to discrimination since it’s the “same” body part. Ms. Naughty quotes this bit from Topfree’s website, which struck me:

“This is a rebellion against a woman’s body being considered everywhere and always a sex object. As women we want the right for ourselves to decide when our breasts are sexual. That isn’t going to be in a swimming facility, and therefore they must not have to be covered. We want permission to bathe topfree, as men do.”

I’m really seduced by the idea of women being able to assert when our bodies are and are not sexual. This is something that has bothered me for some time, and was a large part of what I have written previously: that representations of women’s bodies are usurped and posited as sexual/sex objects despite what the woman herself desires. Women’s bodies seem to be by default sexual. They are subject to sexualization and sexual (or “beauty”) evaluation simply by existing. So I really like the theoretical argument presented here about women being able to own the sexualization of their body.

But while the argument is seductive, I’m not sure that it’s practical. Because the cultural reality is that women don’t own our sexualization. We are constantly evaluated and sexualized. We are catcalled; we are told to put clothes on. Celebrity women are subject to Hot Lists and 25 Unsexiest Women Lists. We do not exist publicly as people, but rather as women. And I don’t think that women baring their breasts publicly will radically change the way that our culture perceives women and their bodies.

I’m actually afraid it might do the opposite. For one thing, considering our culture of street harassment and implicit entitlement of men to sexualize women based on what they are wearing, women going topfree is likely to instigate such behavior. With masculine right to comment women’s bodies and their irritating egotist habits of vocalizing their approval of women’s bodies, it is likely that the women who will have the privilege of being able to go topfree are women whose bodies conform to heteronormative standards and those who don’t will be publicly shamed. Thus, those whose breasts are likely to be visible are those who already conform to heteronormative and patriarchal expectations of which women are appropriately sexual. Further, since breasts are especially hypersexualized and fetishized, and seen to be duly “owed” to men’s gaze and approval (a la “show me ur titz”), I can easily see public topfree-ness quickly turning in public sexual display: how can you move your body or behave and still be considered to be not sexual(ized)? Women going topless in a non-sexual manner surely requires limiting their behavior. And what will keep dance clubs from turning into strip clubs?

Even more insidiously, how will going topless be interpreted in a culture that (WRONGLY!) uses women’s attire or behavior as an “excuse” for rape and sexual assault?

It sounds like I’m being critical but this is actually a lament of sorts. I think the sexualization of women’s bodies should be in appropriate contexts and not merely assumed by their public presence. I think women should be able to determine when and where their bodies are sexual. And I am deeply disturbed that we can’t. Women’s sexual agency is highly constricted in public spaces and it inhibits gender and sexual equality. And I don’t know what to do about it. But I don’t think that going topfree will change societal attitudes; they will likely reinforce them and shame and make invisible women who are not ideally sexy.

This post from Renegade Evolution (blog NSFW) s also excellent, and also related well to my earlier post. She says:

So anyway, I am running along, and I see another runner out and about. I see him pretty often. Like me, I figure he probably works at night (due to the times I see him), and like me, he is insane enough to run at high noonish in this kind of heat, because he and I are the only two out and about. Now, let me stress this: This man is hot. Or so I think anyway […] And while I am sure he gets the gaze from passing hetero female motorists…he’s not the one who gets honked at. And at that moment I am both enraged and jealous that this sweaty, gleaming, sexy, stunning man can be outside running around practically naked, and while yes, carnal thoughts undoubtedly occur in minds other than my own upon seeing him, he is not the one getting honked at. It’s my more heavily clothed and less attractive self who is. Why? Well, ‘cause I’m a chick.

I generally slow down to a brisk walk about two blocks from home, the whole cool down thing, and as I go into my subdivision, a guy in a red truck who was behind me slows down to a crawling pace, and turns in front of me. He’s doing the whole checking me out thing, and nodding, as if to say “wow, I approve”, he literally almost stops, making sure that I notice him, his barely rolling vehicle, his expression and approving nod, and I look at this guy, the single family home neighborhood he’s turning into, where he probably lives with a wife and kids, and here he is leering at me like some drunken frat boy and doing everything in his power to make sure I notice him doing it…and I wanted to throw something at his truck, or follow him home and tell his wife, or drag him out of that Ford and get a good look at him, to see if he would pass my muster and be worthy of my leer, if I would even give him a second fucking glace if he wasn’t blocking the damn road and making an ass of himself. And I’m not the type that always sees sexism in everything: I mean, if I’m at the gym and some guy also working out complements me on my abs, or forearms, or body in general, I don’t take it as sexist. At work, sure, it’s sexist, but it’s expected. The body is what pays the bills. But when I am a damn mess after a run in 100 weather and just trying to get back to my house and some asshat makes such a display of his obvious noticing of me, hell, you’d have to be a corpse not to notice it. […] I betcha half naked red running shorts man doesn’t have to put up with that shit.

I quoted a lot, but I took a few things away from it: the more skimpily clothed (man) is not subject to the same objectification/harassment that she is; there is a context for complimenting appearance that is expected (being at the gym, or being a sex worker, for example).

But her story shows that there is an entitlement to women’s bodies regadless of the context, simply by existing in public. Men have the privilege of being public persons without being subject to unwanted objectification. And this is what needs to change.



  1. earlgreyrooibos said,

    I’m actually afraid it might do the opposite. For one thing, considering our culture of street harassment and implicit entitlement of men to sexualize women based on what they are wearing, women going topfree is likely to instigate such behavior

    On the one hand, I want to say that I am not going to let some dude’s ego scare me away from going topfree if I want (which I do want, but not enough to get arrested). I don’t care what he thinks; I want to swim without a bikini top. But I also am concerned about the threat of rape increasing. And I don’t want to increase my risk just so I can go without a shirt. I don’t want a guy who rapes me to be aquitted because I “asked for it” by going shirtless.

    So really, it makes me angry that I’m risking something worse than arrest (because I would rather be arrested than raped) by wanting to go topfree. It can’t just be an act of civil disobedience; it means setting myself up for assault and not being able to bring that assaulter to justice. Part of me says “I refuse to be a victim,” but ultimately, I’m angry because “it’s not worth it.” The fear of assault is what keeps me from acting for change. I know I have to do SOMETHING about that, but it’s difficult to get motivated in these situations. We have a lot of work to do . . .

  2. lindabeth said,

    Yeah, I agree. I normally too want to say fuck whatever others think. that’s why I’m really struggling with this…on the one hand yes! and I like her point about womendeciding when we’ll be sexual. On the other hand, considering our cultural attitude about women’s sexuality, and women as by default sexual, and women as seemingly subject to public ownership, I’m nervous that this would not challenge but actually feed these existing attitudes. So I’m ideologically torn.

    The right for women to be openly sexual is already limited to those who are validated by patriarchy and conform to oppressive ideas about who and what can be sexual. I’d hate to see a truly feminist gesture be co-opted by patriarchal sex culture. I know all to well that laws alone don’t change behavior and ideology.

  3. Renee said,

    Until men start to respect that women should be able to choose when their bodies are considered sexual, women going topless is going to lead to alot of issues. When a woman gets raped people ask, what she was wearing. Somehow if the clothing is considered revealing she was asking for it. If the woman was actually topless, those type of people would say that the rape was justified.
    I know that focusing on what a group of people think should not be a reason to make a decision. I just feel that with all of the real issues that women have to fight for, the right to bare our breasts just seems like a low priority issue to me. Lets deal with things like domestic violence, socialized daycare etc and leave the nudity issue alone.

  4. lindabeth said,

    When a woman gets raped people ask, what she was wearing. Somehow if the clothing is considered revealing she was asking for it. If the woman was actually topless, those type of people would say that the rape was justified.

    This is definitely something I’m worried about. Men already feel entitled to catcall, harass, and yes, rape women based on what they’re wearing. So much more so if they’re actually partially nude. While male and female breasts are in fact the same body part, they do not hold the same social value, and while I’d like to think we can “reclaim” it, I don’t think we are in a position to do so. If a woman can’t wear whatever clothes she wants and not be sexualized, how can we hope for any better going topless?

    I am drawn to the group’s argument from and idealistic and ideological perspective. But our society isn’t ready for it, IMO.

  5. Gogol said,

    “Men already feel entitled to catcall, harass, and yes, rape women based on what they’re wearing.”

    Whoa, motivation for catcalling, harassment, and rape have actually little to do with what a woman wears but EXCUSING those actions have a lot to do with what the woman was wearing at the time. Rape itself has almost nothing to do with sex or sexual attraction and pretty much everything to do with violence and power- but people always try to justify the action and the victimization by putting it in a sexual context.

  6. lindabeth said,

    Gogol, you’re absolutely correct, and that’s actually what I meant, even though my phrasing was vague/off. It didn’t mean they are motivation for actions but rather attire is a way men and society excuse such actions. Thanks for helping me clarify!

  7. Joanne said,

    But, see men’s chests aren’t necessarily sexualized when they aren’t clothed – ie: my elderly, big-bellied neighbor washing his car. However, when men were expected to wear shirts – ie Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind – it excited a lot of people.
    When women reclaim their breasts by bearing them non-sexually, it scares the crap out of people.
    People hate it when women nurse their babies in public – they really can’t stand it. If we started strength in numbers, not going it alone in the swimming pool, but as an act of civil disobedience, it could change things.

    When I was a kid, I wished I lived in an African village where I could walk around free and naked.

  8. […] seems pretty in-line with much of what I write here.  It’s so simply, and so obvious, yet so opposed to our cultural ideology of women’s […]

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