Never more “liberated”

Peggy Orenstein in Mother Jones:

I have spent three years interviewing dozens of young women about their attitudes toward and experiences with physical intimacy. On the one hand, girls would enthuse about pop icons like Beyoncé, Gaga, Miley, and Nicki who were actively “taking control” of their sexuality. Whereas earlier generations of feminist-identified women may have seen Kim Kardashian West’s “happy #internationalwomensday” tweet and accompanying nude selfie (Instagram caption: “When you’re like I have nothing to wear LOL”) as something to denounce, many of today’s generation talked about it as an expression rather than an imposition of sexuality—brand promotion done on her own terms.

As one college sophomore told me, she never feels more “liberated” than “when I wear a crop top and my boobs are showing and my legs are showing and I’m wearing super high heels.” She added, “I’m proud of my body, and I like to show it off.”

But that’s a very particular idea of “showing off” your body, and of being proud of it. What aspect of your body are you showing off that way, and what are you proud of? It’s not strength or health or ability. It’s hotness. That’s not the only thing a body is about, or for, or good at – and it’s not obvious in what way it’s “liberating” to single out hotness as the only significant aspect of one’s body worth being proud of.

And let’s be real: it’s not really “liberating” to wear high heels. Literally speaking it’s the very opposite of liberating, because it significantly impedes the wearer’s freedom of movement. The same applies, somewhat less obviously, to short skirts and crop tops. Sure, parading one’s hotness is liberating from repressive ideas about sex as shameful, but that’s only one form of liberation, and it’s not obvious that it’s still an urgent one now.

That’s Orenstein’s point, of course, but I wanted to zero in on that oddly limited idea of what it is to be proud of one’s body. But even if you do accept that idea, there are problems.

But a moment later it became clear that unless, through fortuitous genetics or incessant work, you were able to “show off” the right body, the threat of ridicule lurked. The young woman told me that a friend had recently gained some weight. It’s not that she couldn’t wear skimpy clothes, the woman explained. “But she knows how she would feel if there were asshole-y boys who were like, ‘She’s a fat girl.'”

Young women talked about feeling simultaneously free to choose a sexualized image—which was nobody’s damned business but their own—and having no other choice. “You want to stand out,” one college freshman explains. “It’s not just about being hot, but who can be the hottest.”

Well guess what: that’s not freedom. It may be a competition you want to enter, but don’t kid yourself that it’s freedom.

But as journalist Ariel Levy pointed out in her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, “hot” is not the same as “beautiful” or “attractive”: It is a narrow, commercialized vision of sexiness that, when applied to women, can be reduced to two words: “fuckable” and “sellable.” No coincidence, Levy added, that this is “the literal job criteria for stars of the sex industry.”

And there are other things to be, other criteria, and by god there are other industries. Being fuckable and sellable has a short shelf life, and anyway those qualities are passive. Be passive if you want to, but again, don’t confuse that with being a Strong Powerful Woman in Charge of Her Own Destiny.

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