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.
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.