Nudity, Sexuality, Body-Positivity: Why my sexiness (or lack thereof) has no bearing on my body-positive viewpoint.

Obviously this is all sex appeal. Photo by Allan Crain.

There is an idea in our culture that a naked human body is somehow inherently sexual. This is a fact that we take for granted in our everyday lives, to the point that I would be surprised if at least a few people didn’t read that sentence and think “wait, it’s not?” When I marched in the 2012 Pride parade wearing denim shorts and a pair of pasties, myself and a few other girls in similar garb were berated on the grounds that this was not “family friendly.” The implication there being, of course, that we were sexually explicit and therefore inappropriate for children’s eyes. We weren’t performing any sexual behaviors – we weren’t making out with each other, caressing our own or anyone else’s bodies, or making lewd gestures or comments. We simply had a whole lot of exposed skin. And frankly, at Pride, I think that ought to be ok, especially since it happens in June which in my city is approximately a billion degrees.

When Congressman Barney Frank was interviewed by CNS News regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in December of 2010, he was asked to address the issue of straight and homosexual men being required to shower together. His response was one of mock dismay, and he goes on to refer to it as a “silly issue,” asking “what is it you think goes on when you shower with homosexuals?”

The interviewer was offering the implication that if homosexual men were to share a shower with other men, heterosexual or otherwise, they would inevitably become aroused by the presence of naked male bodies. Because these men are attracted to men, being around them while nude will surely result in arousal. Congressmen Frank’s rebuttal is that showering is not a sex act, and heterosexual men are not going to be threatened by the presence of homosexuals in their showers. He says that homosexuals, “don’t get [them]selves dry-cleaned, [they] tend to take showers.” He defuses the sexual innuendo of the interviewer’s question by comparing showering to laundry, and I am on board with his comparison. In many ways, showering is a lot closer to laundry than it is to sex, but because it involves naked bodies a sexual association is inevitably placed upon it.

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Pictured: Debi Laszewski, professional bodybuilder, personal trainer, and model.

This assumption is so far reaching that we take it for granted, but it has troubling implications. If the purpose of the naked body is solely to fuck, then its sexual appeal becomes the most important measure of its worth. This is not only utterly wrong but often downright foolish. Here’s a not-very-funny story: I have a friend who is a college professor and body builder. He told me a story about a 19-year-old male student who walked into his office one day and saw a photo on his desktop of an award-winning female body builder, a friend of his. The student’s immediate reaction was “I wouldn’t fuck THAT!”

Needless to say, the student got an earful from his professor, but my simple response to this mindless outburst would be simply “so what?” This woman is taking mindful control of her body, and winning awards for it. It is hers to design and build to her specifications, and she prizes it enough to pit herself against other bodies in competition – and comes out on top! Yet somehow this young man seemed to think that his sexual desire – or lack thereof – for this woman was a legitimate basis on which to judge her body. He intentionally disparaged her body solely because he did not want to have sex with it. That’s more than mean, that’s insane.

This train of thinking about nudity, sexuality, and sexual desirability, makes the body-positivity movement immensely more difficult to propagate. I’ve heard people issue “reassurance” to women about their bodies by telling them, in essence, “there’s somebody out there who’s into that.” If the best thing you can tell a woman insecure about her naked body is that there’s someone in the world who’d want to fuck it, you’ve got an utterly warped sense of the human body. Telling women that they don’t have to conform to the Western white-hetero-middle-class ideals of beauty is a good start. Tell women that they don’t have to look like a Victoria’s Secret model. But don’t tell them that the reason they don’t have to look that way is because someone will still think they’re sexy. It’s probably true, and it’s good to feel sexy. But how fuckable a person’s body is doesn’t measure the value of that body.

People’s bodies are constantly judged with a sexual slant. Men disparage female body builders because nobody wants a woman who looks “like a man.” A sexy photograph of a tattooed woman on Facebook got the comment, “Interesting post but someday she’s gonna want to just git nekkid with someone…” These comments are not only disparaging a person’s body based on its sexual appeal, they’re judging people based on the bodies they’ve created ON PURPOSE. This is important to me.

I think the judgment of a modded body is different from the more common (but equally reprehensible) activities of fat-bashing and thin-bashing and judgment of any sort of natural bodily design. Those kinds of comments carry the implication that the person being judged is somehow unfortunate, that they should change their body to improve it, because obviously no one WANTS to be “like that,” whether the “that” in question is fat, thin, small breasted, large-assed, whatever. There’s a different flavor of ignorance there, that the person is somehow incomplete or needs improvement.

When someone flings sexually-based judgments at a modded body, it’s as if they’re saying the person has done something wrong. “Your body is for my enjoyment, so what on earth compelled you to do that to it?” seems to be the question. It’s almost accusatory.

I know that distinction was a bit of a transgression from my point, so I’ll bring it back around. In both cases, bodies are being viewed in terms of whether or not people want to have sex with them. And really, the only people I care about when it comes to their opinion on my fuckability, are my partners. My body image ought not to be based on my “attractiveness.” (I say ought not to because I’ll admit I get hung up on it too.) It should be based on what I’ve done with it, and whether my treatment of my body is what I desire, and whether said treatment is obtaining the desired results. For example, I’m incredibly pleased and satisfied with the tattoo on my back. I’m less pleased and satisfied with the current shape of my legs, because I don’t run as often as I want to. I’m not displeased with my legs because they aren’t sexy: I’m displeased because I’m working toward a goal and am not achieving it to my personal satisfaction.

My sister likes to argue with me over the term body-positivity, and say that really it ought to be body-neutrality. Bodies are not inherently positive OR negative, and we do not have the right to judge or shame the bodies of others. Thus, neutral. I’ll agree with that; however body-positivity for me isn’t necessarily the same as self-love, -image, or -esteem. Body positivity is about accepting other people’s body choices as their own, and encouraging their intentional bodies. I will confess a distaste for people with apathy toward their own bodies. But if you are owning and creating your body to your personal specifications, you are what body-positivity is about for me. I don’t care if you love yourself, or if you look in the mirror and feel pretty, or whatever. It’s about acknowledging your body as your instrument, and owning its shape and maintenance. It’s about self-consciousness, rather than self-esteem. And it’s completely incompatible with the sexual objectification of the naked body, which is all about becoming desirable to a non-existent and unreachable public opinion. The non-consensual sexualization of my body destroys my agency by framing it in terms I didn’t choose or create, based on a standard that is ill-defined and worse-understood. It cannot possibly coexist with my idea of body-positivity, and frankly I like my opinions better.

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12 thoughts on “Nudity, Sexuality, Body-Positivity: Why my sexiness (or lack thereof) has no bearing on my body-positive viewpoint.

  1. “When someone flings sexually-based judgments at a modded body, it’s as if they’re saying the person has done something wrong. “Your body is for my enjoyment, so what on earth compelled you to do that to it?” seems to be the question. It’s almost accusatory.”

    This is pretty much how I feel about every part of this debate. I know what I find attractive and not attractive in others, but it’s not a judgment about that person. It’s just simply about what I find attractive and arousing. But…it’s only in that context. It’s when–as you put–someone turns it into a qualitative judgment about the person. They are less valuable because they are [insert category], which boils down to a form of stereotyping and bias, even though people don’t necessarily want to view it as such. But, given my research on attitudes (i.e. a positive or negative judgment about a focal target), this sort of reaction is most definitely a stereotype.

    I also think there’s a good bit of defense of one’s ego and sense of self-worth in there as well (i.e. “I’m not _______, so I have value.”). But, that’s likely a pretty big tangent for this discussion. At some point when you see me out, ask me about stereotype research. I think you’d find it pretty engaging, as well as terribly relevant here.

    And all that said, this is a wonderful blog entry. Thank you for sharing it.

    • I totally agree. I will always argue that people have a right to their preferences, aesthetically and erotically. But that preference doesn’t have any actual bearing on the person being viewed.

  2. My God, Star! What a brilliant and compelling post this is! You make me want to say so many things. First, I think the point of the Barney Frank episode, and also your larger observation about the non-consensual sexualization of your proper body, is a by-product of a large-scale commercialized repression that we all not only by into, but which for which we actively militate. (What Foucault calls as “The Repressive Hypothesis.”) We love our repression, we create it so that it can create us,so that any exposure of the body has got to be, you know, “naughty.”

    I think I told you that when I said to a colleague Sue and I liked visiting the nude beach north of Miami, he turned blue, put his fingers in his ears, and started hopping from foot to foot, going “TMI! TMI!” I waited for a bit and said, “Dude! You’re 33 years old and you have a fucking Ph.D. Act like it!” This is a faculty reenactment of the Barney Frank interview, or your chastizement in the walk. Nude beaches are precisely what your critic cannot get: family places. Nobody fucks or even behaves sexually on a nude beach — there are too many people just waiting to close them down. . . and, besides, that is just not what they’re there for.

    About positivity: I think I may agree with your sis on this. Only because we’re having new ideas and I think want also new vocab to express them. (I know: English Teacher!). I think it’s okay to feel attractive to, and in fact to feel attracted to, others besides your lovers and partners. I know you do too.

    But I raise it here because it throws me back to a long-ago conversation about why I speak to single women at bus stops and in the park. Americans are so blunt and thuggish in matters like this. I say “Hello,” to everyone because it’s a way of saying “I see you,” and also, just a little, of acknowledging not so much that we all want to fuck each other (although who knows, maybe we do), but rather that as denizens of the same world, shareholders in this same micro-flash of light in an eternity that ignores us, we need one another. Your post makes me think so much of Americanized self-narration needs “I’m not gonna fuck THAT!” The push away, the shove, the scape-goating, the denial or refusal of the other. This has started me thinking about a million things.

    Forgive me for running on so. I’m so happy you’re doing this blog.

    • You may be right about the need to create new terminology rather than claim my own definition for a term that’s already being widely circulated.

      And of course it’s okay to feel attractive or to be attracted to others based on physical or aesthetic traits. But the attractions that we feel need to be separate from judgment calls regarding someone else’s body. I don’t personally find Debi attractive. I DO think her body, and her commitment to it, is amazing and impressive. Additionally I am going to continue to behave in ways that make me feel attractive and sexy, but I am not going to judge the quality of my own body based on how effective that behavior is in making people ogle me.

  3. To be honest, I’m not overly familiar with the term “body-positivity.” Sure, I’ve heard it here and maybe there, and it appears rather self-explanatory. However, the self-explanatory aspect may only be skin deep, if you will.

    This is a really great, thought-provoking post. It’s a shame the naked human body has been deemed, well, shameful. It’s just skin, hair, and muscle – what is there to be appalled about?! Nakedness doesn’t taint childlike innocence. It isn’t gross and depraved. It’s simply natural.

    • Body-positivity, broadly speaking, is about acceptance of all body types as valid and valuable. Its general goals are to eliminate body-shaming of any kind and promote the idea that any shape, size, or type of body is okay and is beautiful. I don’t necessarily buy all of the tenets of this movement simply because I think it allows a lot of very dangerous possibilities, wherein people can make excuses for living damaging lifestyles.

      • Ah I see. And I get why you don’t buy into it all. Reading that description, I wouldn’t necessarily buy into it all either. It does give room for the excuse that people should be careless with their bodies – resembling the use of “YOLO.” I myself don’t have the healthiest of eating habits and could probably afford to shed a few pounds, but I don’t hate my body. I’m learning to love my body, while trying to accrue healthier habits.

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  6. Well, I liked this piece a lot, until I got to the end. I do get pretty sick of hearing people written off–as people, as people in bodies, as bodies–just because someone doesn’t consider them “fuckable.”

    But I’m not crazy about the “people with apathy towards their own bodies” comment either. What, if I don’t want to work out 20 hours a week (because I’ve been doing it my whole life and want to do something else with my time now, or can’t because I work two jobs or have health or pain issues, or I just don’t want to because I don’t like working out), I have apathy towards my body? What does “apathy towards my own body” even mean, and how do YOU (author of the piece, that is) even know how I feel about my own body unless you ask me?

    Apparently, you know because of the way I look, to YOU, I guess. So you are judging my body, and me, based on its conformity to your standards of (fill in the blank). How is that different from judging my body, and me, based on your standards of fuckability?

    So the basic premise of the piece just cancels itself out at the end. And it ends up sounding like “I want to judge people and their bodies, just by MY standards, not some randy 19-year-old boy’s standards.”

    Still, thanks for this piece. It’s a conversation worth having.

    • There are a lot of questions you’ve posed here, I’ll try my best to address them all.

      First: What, if I don’t want to work out 20 hours a week […]?
      If you make that decision consciously, because that’s what you want from your body, cool. Go for it. If you’re not working out because you just don’t think about what you want your body to look like, or if you SAY you want to work out but just don’t bother, and your life just sorta happens to you, that’s what I have issues with.

      Second: What does “apathy towards my own body” even mean?
      If I eat an entire pack of Oreos because I really want to, knowing it’s unhealthy, accepting the potential consequences, and being ok with them, I’m making conscious decisions for my life that will affect my body. If I’m eating an entire pack of Oreos because I didn’t think about the potential consequences for my health or appearance, or because I don’t care about said consequences, that’s apathy.

      Third: How do YOU (author of the piece, that is) even know how I feel about my own body unless you ask me?
      I don’t. And I would never presume to critique the body of someone I don’t know, because I can’t understand the choices that led them to create the body they live in without knowing them.

      Fourth: How is that different from judging my body, and me, based on your standards of fuckability?
      If the answers to the first three questions don’t address this one, I don’t know what more to tell you.

  7. I like your inquiry, frankness and willingness to take a stand. I would ask respectfully do you know the difference between rebelling against an idea and seeing it to be untrue?

    In one case the person remaines bound to the idea. The rebel must push against an idea as much as a conformist must obey it; two sides of one coin. The idea becomes a source of identity if one is pro or con. To see something as untrue doesn’t take the idea as a point of reference, either for oneself or others. We don’t refer to witchcraft to explain things anymore.

    Consider the huge leap from an idea of beauty to the idea of joy or sexual pleasure. Those are two different things. They don’t exclude on another but they certainly don’t follow of necessity.

    The ideas around beauty are superstitious. “If I had that, then… ” The blank gets filled with imagination and this becomes a governing force as you observed in your own words. The disappointment can be crushing, for if one achieves the desire, it can’t be what one imagined, in the same way we never eat the idea of a banana. But if somone doesn’t achieve the desire then they can chase it indefinitely, even missing what they can have (that might even be better) because all gets compared with a ideal. That by its very cause, must be imaginary.
    That is sad.

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