Monday, September 9, 2013

Explicitness is not the issue. Here's why.

(With some help from Naomi Wolf.)

Let me preface this by saying I have been thinking about this post all week and realize that in honestly expressing where I stand and how I feel, I will probably alienate persons on both sides of the issue (this seems to happen often these days just by being who I am). 

However, it's a risk I'm willing to take.  I didn't start this blog with the hopes that everyone would love my opinions and thoughts all the time, but with the hope that what I write will open dialogue and get folks thinking and speaking and deciding and problem-solving and changing.

I believe in the importance and benefits of chastity and in modesty (there are conversations to be had about either topic in a completely different post/series of posts).  I believe in the sacred nature of the human body.  

I also have some feelings about nudity and the naked body that sit outside of the conservative Christian mainstream.  I will share them and some pretty powerful quotes but FIRST we (Naomi Wolf and I) need to tell you what "beauty pornography" is.  

"Beauty pornography looks like this: The perfected woman lies prone, pressing down her pelvis.  Her back arches, her mouth is open, her eyes shut, her nipples erect; there is a fine spray of moisture over her golden skin.  The position is female superior; the stage of arousal, the plateau phase just proceeding orgasm.  On the next page, a version of her, mouth open, eyes shut, is about to tongue the pink tip of a lipstick cylinder.  On the page after, another version kneels in the sand on all fours, her buttocks in the air, her face pressed into a towel, mouth open, eyes shut.  The reader is looking through an ordinary women's magazine.  In an ad for Reebok shoes, the woman sees a naked female torso, eyes averted.  In an ad for Lily of France lingerie, she sees a naked female torso, eyes shut; for Opium perfume, a naked woman, back and buttocks bare, falls facedown from the edge of a bed; for Triton showers, a naked woman, back arched, flings her arms upward; for Jogbra sports bra, a naked female torso is cut off at the neck.  In these images, where the face is visible, it is expressionless in a rictus of ecstasy.  The reader understands from them that she will have to look like that if she wants to feel like that."  

Did that last paragraph make you feel uncomfortable?  It should have.  And yet, why would it, seeing as beauty pornography is, quite literally, everywhere?  What Naomi Wolf describes embodies the social cues we absorb about "beautiful" female bodies and female sexuality and you certainly don't need to be a connoisseur of pornography to take in daily an overwhelming diet.  

I love to skinny dip.  I have loved it since I was seven years old and my girlfriend I made while visiting my grandma asked me to go swimming naked with her in her family's pool while no one else was home.  Pools are alright, but mountain lakes are the best!  Especially when it is late at night and the sky is saturated in starlight reflecting perfectly off the black glass your naked body is enveloped in.  Recently on a church camp-out, I took a group of four girls who had never gone before.  One by one they consented.  One 19-year-old girl who months prior swore up and down she would never go gleefully exclaimed once naked and in the water "This is one of the most freeing experiences of my life!"

Yet there's always the frustrating fear of "what if we get caught?"  And worse--what if we get caught and there are children?  (As a public school teacher, the risk of sex-offender status is a pretty good deterrent in broad daylight on trails with heavy traffic.)

And yet I wonder why my naked body in a mountain stream is obscene while one and one's children are bombarded on every side with beauty pornography, with no petitions, and no laws.  So does Naomi Wolf.

"Obscenity law is based in part on the idea that you can avoid what offends you.  But the terms ordinarily used in the pornography debate cannot deal adequately with this issue.  Discussions of obscenity, or nakedness, or community standards do not address the harm done to women by this development: the way in which "beauty" joins pornography conventions in advertising, fashion photography, cable TV, and even comic books to affect women and children.  Men can choose to enter an adult bookstore [or visit pornographic websites]; women and children cannot choose to avoid sexually violent or beauty-pornographic imagery that follows them home.

"Sexual 'explicitness' is not the issue.  We could use a lot more of that, if explicit meant honest and revealing; if there were a full spectrum of erotic images of uncoerced real women and real men in contexts of sexual trust, beauty pornography could theoretically hurt no one.  Defenders of pornography base their position on the idea of freedom of speech, casting pornographic imagery as language.  Using their own argument, something striking emerges about the representation of women's bodies: The representation is heavily censored.  Because we see many versions of the naked Iron Maiden, we are asked to believe that our culture promotes display of female sexuality.  It actually shows almost none.  It censors representations of women's bodies, so that only the official versions or visible.  Rather than seeing images of female desire or that cater to female desire, we see mock-ups of living mannequins, made to contort and grimace, immobilized and uncomfortable under hot lights, professional set-pieces that reveal little about female sexuality.  In the United States and Great Britain, which have no traditions of public nakedness, women rarely--and almost never outside a competitive context--see what other women look like naked; we see only identical humanoid products based loosely on women's bodies."

Thus it is.  Most women have little to no idea what is actually going on underneath the clothing of other women (even those scantily clad).  To quote the brilliant Kate Savage from her entry on this blog, 

"Maybe the best way to finally outlaw real, human, sexual bodies is to replace them with purified simulations. We’ve got our own heavy paper to paste over the indecent materiality of flesh: only ours are printed with porn. Behind that heavy paper, the punishment and shaming of women’s bodies -- of our breasts, our thighs, our asses -- hasn’t let up, in all these centuries, for a second."

This conversation is only getting started, but let me share an experience I have had on several occasions that I wish I could give to every woman in my life.  

I love to run and I LOVE to run relay races.  I ran my first Hood to Coast this year, and I've run two Ragnar races.  Look 'em up.  All-through-the-night, three legs per runner, twelve people, 200 miles, two sweaty vans filled with six sweaty humans each.  Looking for a shower?  The course provides several high school locker rooms where you can strip down and join the other thirty (plus) naked ladies under your own stream of hot water as dirt trickles off your body and races to the drain while steam and conversation fills the room.

Naked bodies, and lots of them.  This, THIS is diversity.  I had no idea that breasts and nipples came in so many different shapes and sizes and colors.  Some bodies are bigger than mine, some are smaller.

Short, tall, squatty, lithe, pears, apples, carrots, hourglasses, women!  

Scars, cellulite, stretchmarks, muscles, bones, skin, hair, lungs and hearts beating blood circulating women talking, laughing, living, thriving.  

How healing it is to see real naked bodies.  They are, in my opinion, the only balm for the deep scars beauty pornography has left in our minds and hearts about bodies.  Our bodies.  Why are we so afraid?

Women--imagine for a moment how your life would be different if advertisements were replaced by real-life, first-person experiences with real, naked, female bodies.

Imagine if on your 14th birthday you were taken to the bath-house with your mother, your grandmothers, your aunts, your sisters, and all of your female role-models.  Imagine that you all sat with only a towel between you and the wood, in the steam and the heat, no posturing or posing, only soft bellies and thighs pressed down taking up delicious space.  Imagine being surrounded by naked, real women.  Imagine that these women only spoke well of their own bodies--praising them for their capacities, strength, miraculous feats, stories, and all that they are. You were encouraged to look, to ask questions--about bodies, about menstruation, ovulation, the complexities of sex and love.  Imagine you were encouraged to be confident, respectful, and never ashamed of your body.  Imagine the woman you respected most stood before you bare, in all of her flaws, looked at you boldly in the eyes and told you emphatically that she was in love with her body.

How would you be different today?


  1. I like a lot of what you wrote. It seems though that you are arguing that we see real nakedness and I'm not so sure on that one. I don't like "beauty pornography". I wish it were not officially okay to post on bill boards. And I think there are many in the camp that don't want full nakedness in places that also don't want the current okay "beauty porn". I also wish there weren't radio ads that start with "You know you want them" speaking of breast "enhancement", I wish the female body weren't so sexualized that many feel as if the breast is only sexual, but I will always use a cover to nurse my babes and though I will be open with my daughters, they won't be showering with me past age 3. And it has NOTHING to do with being ashamed and everything to do with being grateful for my body and treating something so sacred with the privacy/intimacy/sanctity/protection I feel it demands. And I have lived among/in a culture of real female nakedness and in it and in everyone I've seen or heard about having real female nakedness did nothing for the morals of its society in regards to chastity and much to do with promiscuity and sex just being sex/an act/no big deal. Not that I think there aren't exceptions either. I get that too. But I would be weary to think this way--the way I think you're arguing. I feel like, and this may not sit right, but it's the best description I have now, you wouldn't take an alcoholic who loved vodka and other harder drinks and just tell him to take a beer. But how do you stop a plague? (That's what pornography has been called in LDS religion.) Right? I keep trying to figure that one out. Especially when you can't cut ALL the supply lines (the billboards, radio ads, store windows, etc).

    1. You put that so well. I very much agree with what you've said here and I thank you for your willingness to share your views :)

  2. I don't think there's much we can do at this point to reduce the "beauty pornography" that average people see on a daily basis. For me it seems we can combat the consequences with education and celebration. Seeing real people naked is part of that education, but it also comes with talking openly and feeling comfortable asking questions. Celebration is being joyful about our bodies, talking about all of the wonderful things they can do and celebrating by using them. Go run a 5k or a marathon, swim until your lungs burn, and if you've never tried it before I highly recommend skinny dipping. When you realize that reality is so wonderful the fake beauty seems just that, cheap, fake and undesirable.

  3. Wow. Chills. Tears. Thank you.

  4. Truth. I agree with you completely! And I think you are right not to talk in this post about issues of modesty or chastity at all. Not every conversation about women's bodies needs to be about sex or sexuality or appropriateness/standards/expectations for how much of the female body should be seen. Female bodies are not all about sex. They aren't just about being seen by others. They are not a danger to constantly be wary of exposing. Females need real bodies, for openness, understanding, confidence, self-esteem, self-respect... I don't see anything offensive about this post. It is BEAUTIFUL!! And real. Keep at it woman. You are amazing!

    1. Love this, lady. You are incredible. You should consider writing something for this series!

    2. Love your post, Dana, and love this comment, ktb! "Not every conversation about women's bodies needs to be about sex or sexuality or appropriateness/standards/expectations for how much of the female body should be seen. Female bodies are not all about sex. They aren't just about being seen by others. They are not a danger to constantly be wary of exposing." This is a truth that needs to be claimed. I want to put this up on my wall. Powerful. Thank you!

  5. I'm with you all the way. I've had the privilege of regularly experiencing communal showers (life as a summer camp counselor) and bath houses (mission in Korea), and it's so freeing. I remember seeing women I knew unclothed, guiltily glancing at their thighs and butts and bellies, and thinking, "But ... I thought she was pretty." And then realizing that, yes, she is, and the unique shape of her body is part of her prettiness . . . beyond that, part of herself. And that my body, as distinctive from hers as ours are distinctive from magazine plates, is a welcome and glorious part of me, too.

    1. Yes! I remember making that realization as well. "But...I thought she was pretty?" SHE IS PRETTY. The only bodies we have wide public access to come to us from beauty porn. Thus, the first time you see a real naked female body it might be jarring. There will be contrast. But the more bodies you see, the more you realize that bodies are ALL ABOUT contrast. It's amazing to me how little we know about the reality of bodies when we so personally inhabit them.

  6. I think I understand what you are saying, but I think that the focus shouldn't be to reveal more real women's bodies, but to teach ourselves and our children that our bodies are sacred, and not for casual viewing by anyone, except for us and for our spouse, at appropriate times. Because our bodies are beautiful and wonderful and glorious and a priceless gift. If we were to always share our naked bodies with those around us (even if it were just other women) wouldn't that mean we were de-emphasizing the sacredness of our bodies? Wouldn't that just put them into the category of mundane, normal, not special? I think I'd ask you to imagine if you were to be taught to treasure your naked form and to keep it to yourself, not out of shame for its ugliness, but out of respect for its beauty, how you would be different? Also imagine if when you revealed it to your spouse for the first time, him never having seen a naked woman's body, and being taught to treasure and respect its sacred mysterious form, how much more entranced and enticed and honored do you think he might be to be given leave to witness it? And vice versa, as since if you are going to teach this kind of modesty to your daughter, you should also teach it to your son. Imagine how much more wonder, respect, joy and amazement we would feel toward the human body if every person were taught this way. Would we have beauty porn if every woman and every man thought of naked bodies this way?

    1. Naomi--We will ALWAYS have beauty porn. It's about capitalism and industries that thrive off of female insecurity. The naked (or close to it) female body in advertisement is ALWAYS postured sexually AND not a realistic representation of female bodies. The message we receive ad nauseam is that not only is the female body only sexual and for the purpose of being looked at in a sexual way, but that said body has to look a certain way to achieve that end. If the ONLY other exposure you have with naked bodies is your spouse, where on earth are you supposed to develop any sort of healthy grounded reality about real, unclothed bodies before then?

      To answer your question about a spouse never seeing a woman's body, I supposed if he lived in some sort of media vacuum this is possible. But he doesn't. He sees just as much beauty porn as any of us--and it seems like if his exposure with real female bodies (in tasteful, non-sexualized ways, ie: not pornography) is non-existent, that sets the woman up for more neurosis--as she knows that he knows she doesn't look like the women in those adds.

    2. I wasn't talking about the world we live in now, I was talking about a hypothetical world that is the exact opposite of what you are proposing. If everyone, even those who work for capitalist marketing agencies had so much respect and reverence for their bodies, the idea of portraying someone's naked or clothed body as an object for the purpose of someone else' viewing pleasure would simply be abhorrent. Not only that, but no one would volunteer.

      Realistically, people see naked bodies in a non-sexualized way all the time. Or at least almost naked bodies. You've gone swimming, and you've seen people in exercise gear. You know, and you have always known, that real people don't look like those in the magazine. There is no way you can look at a clothed person and think that underneath her clothes she looks just like that naked girl on the billboard, because hey, it's not like you can actually see her naked body right? It could look like anything.

      Realistically, you choose to believe that anyone could ever look like the girl in the magazine, even though almost every person that you are ever likely to see in the real world is a testament to how that's not even a remote possibility.

      I don't think that you would choose to believe otherwise just because you sat in a room full of naked people once in your life. I think that what you really like about that scenario is that the women you respect in your life are talking about themselves in a way that is uplifting instead of tearing themselves down. I'm positive that can be accomplished without being naked together.

      Maybe it's different for you, but I choose to believe that it is much more special for only a few people to be allowed to see my entirely naked body than for me to be showing everyone I know what I look like without clothes on. Only 2 people get to see me with my clothes off: my husband and my daughter. A my daughter grows up, that number will shrink to 1, provided I don't have any more children. The fact that my husband is the only one makes it much more intimate and special, and if I were to let even just my closest family see my body for any reason, that specialness and intimacy wouldn't be nearly as profound.

      As to having even more neurosis because she knows that he knows she doesn't look like that... I just have to wonder if you assume that people don't have eyes. My husband sure wasn't surprised the first time he saw me naked that I totally didn't look like that magazine spread. He could tell with my clothes on that I wasn't going to look that way. Of course I knew that he knew, it's really a no-brainer. Even with clothes on, you still have a pretty good idea what people are going to look like under all the clothes. He still wasn't disappointed. He was very happy to be given permission to be in such an intimate setting with me. And vice versa.

  7. Freaking.... AMAZING. Thanks! I need to start contributing again. I got sidetracked the past year.