Selfies, Feminism, and Women’s Bodies

I found out recently that selfies are a tool of the patriarchy to control me. It was news to me since I thought they were, you know, just a self-portrait like humans have been creating for ages, but requiring much less talent.

Self portrat of feminist selfie

But Erin Gloria Ryan was there to set me straight with her Jezebel article on the ‘cry for help’ that selfies really are.

Selfies aren’t empowering; they’re a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.

Until I read that, I had no idea that selfies were so different from other photographs! I was horrified to realize that they weren’t just another way of commemorating my life and devastated to find out that they were a misogynistic plot to dehumanize me.

What is it about them that makes them such an insidious weapon of oppression?

Erin explained it in a single sentence, and after you read it, I think you’ll feel as silly as I did at how obvious the truth is.

They’re literally just pictures of a woman’s face not talking.

Okay, so maybe not so obvious right away. But since I don’t know of any pictures that talk, I have to assume that the problem is the presence of just a woman’s face. I’ve apparently been naïve in assuming that pictures of women’s faces aren’t any different from pictures of men or even of groups, but Erin points out that they’re obviously a cry for affirmation.

It’s so embarrassing to have my motives exposed like that on the Internet for everyone to see before I even knew them myself. I’m tempted to doubt that I’m driven by insecurity, but she’s clear that there is rarely ever another reason for posting a selfie . . . except for when there is another reason.

She admits (under the self-proclaimed fear of death) that the Marines who showed off their trigger skills with a camera after completing training weren’t taking patriarchal selfies. They were inspiring to anyone who doesn’t have a death wish.

But such non-patriarchal selfies are as rare as the threat of death from Marines with hurt feelings.

If selfies were typically jubilant post-achievement photos snapped by women proud of what they’d accomplished, then Simmons’ assertion that selfies are ‘tiny pulse(s) of girl pride’ would be apt. But the typical selfie is not taken by women who have just completed Iron Man Triathlons or finally finished reading Infinite Jest (caption: Me N DFW 4 eva! XOXO #blessed #reading #smart #rip); selfies don’t typically contain job offer letters, successful grant applications, their face in front of a gorgeously rendered still life the woman drew by hand.

A week thumb's up following the GRE. Guess it's a good thing my face wasn't showing so that people know it was a picture based on my achievements and not a cry for affirmation about how pretty I am.

A weak thumb’s up following the GRE. Guess it’s a good thing my face wasn’t showing so that people know it was a picture based on my achievements and not a cry for affirmation about how pretty I am.

It’s good to know that I can post a selfie if I took it after doing something impressive . . . because self-worth shouldn’t be appearance-based, just performance-based. Unfortunately, I’ll have to readjust my perspective on self-esteem, because I was under the totally ridiculous assumption that everyone has inherent worth and deserves to love themselves as they are, regardless of their appearance or accomplishments.

Erin goes on to list one other exception:

Some women I follow on Instagram, for example, post pictures of themselves wearing cool sunglasses or lipstick or hats, which I feel is not technically a selfie because the point of a pure selfie is “HERE’S MY FACE” and not “here’s a cool hat/lipstick shade/pair of sunglasses.”

Take note, women, this one is important. Taking pictures of yourself is totally patriarchal and oppressive, but taking pictures of yourself to show off another object—now that’s feminine power!

Advertisers had it right all along! Here we see an acceptable, empowering version of a woman's face from Dolce and Gabana. Note that the empowering part comes from the fact that, even though she's not talking, she's showing off this awesome new lipstick color!

Advertisers had it right all along! Here we see an acceptable, empowering version of a woman’s face from Dolce and Gabbana. Note that the empowering part comes from the fact that, even though she’s not talking, she’s showing off this awesome new lipstick color!

I’m so glad that Erin drew my attention to this issue because I realize that I’ve been completely hoodwinked about the innocence and inconsequentiality of selfies.

Needless to say, I’ve immediately adjusted my approach. I’m deliberately posting more than usual.

This one I took specially for Erin to express my gratitude. I've removed my face since that seems to be the what makes the picture dis-empowering. I hope she likes it. I'd be devastated if she didn't give me the affirmations of my self worth that I so desperately need after posting this picture.

This one I took specially for Erin to express my gratitude. I’ve removed my face since that seems to be the what makes the picture dis-empowering. I hope she likes it. I’d be devastated if she didn’t give me affirmations that I so desperately need after posting this picture.

But as I head into this new body war, flashes blazing, I really want to know, why the FUCK is everyone so intent on erasing women’s bodies?

Patriarchy, religion, modesty culture, and now feminism?!

To quote Erin: “Just stop.”

Stop telling women that their bodies are inconsequential.

Stop telling women that their bodies do not belong to them.

Stop telling women to ignore their bodies.

Stop telling women to dissociate from their bodies.

Stop telling women to be ashamed of their bodies.

STOP!

Even if selfies were a symptom of a negative view of the self (They’re not. And if you think they are, hop over to this post to see what I have to say to that!), shaming women isn’t going to fix the problem. It just adds to the shit-pile of expectations that women are already trying to navigate as it is.

I don’t want a feminist campaign that seeks to fight body-shame and body-objectification by erasing my body. I want a feminist campaign that encourages me to live in my body as a part of myself. I’m sick of the projections and generalizations. I’m sick of the shame. Selfies aren’t a tool of the patriarchy, but body-shaming sure as hell is!

 

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Intelligence . . . You Keep Using that Word

Ignorant: a state of not knowing what a pronoun is, or how to find the square root of 27.4, and merely knowing childish and useless things like which of the seventy almost identical-looking species of the purple sea snake are the deadly ones, how to treat the poisonous pith of the Sago-sago tree to make a nourishing gruel, how to foretell the weather by the movements of the tree-climbing Burglar Crab, how to navigate across a thousand miles of featureless ocean by means of a piece of string and a small clay model of your grandfather, how to get essential vitamins from the liver of the ferocious Ice Bear, and other such trivial matters. It’s a strange thing that when everyone becomes educated, everyone knows about the pronoun but no one knows about the Sago-sago.

Terry Pratchet, The Hogfather

I’m keeping it short this week because I’m taking the GRE this Saturday. To be honest, a gun is looking rather less painful than sitting through hours of this trollop.

The last time I took a standardized test, I was under the impression that they were a fantastic measure of intelligence. I wanted to get a perfect score and managed to get high enough that I attracted the attention of Harvard.

Of course, I ended up going to Bob Jones University instead, but that’s a story for a different time.

A lot has changed for me since I took the SAT and ACT. For one, I forgot almost all of my high school math, despite being able to take and pass a statistics course in undergrad.

Unfortunately, reviewing math isn’t all that the GRE requires, as I quickly found out from my study books. In addition to needing to know how big a rectangle will fit inside of a cylinder that has a radius of ___ and a height of ___, I also need to be able to read the test-makers’ minds.

Perhaps the GRE is more obvious than the SAT was, or perhaps I’m just more aware now than I was before, but this time around, I can see that the standardized test isn’t really a measure of intelligence.

From The Princess Bride

From The Princess Bride

Harvard liked me based on the numbers they saw after my SAT, but looking back at who I was, I can see that the SAT failed to measure anything of significance about my readiness for college, my critical thinking skills, or my awareness of the world. Had they measured that, I probably would have failed.

Now, as I prepare to apply for graduate school, my performance on the GRE will determine how much credence schools give to my application, but are they really getting a measure of how well I’ll do in grad school? Are they getting a measure of my critical thinking skills? Of my tenacity? Of my ability to question and seek out answers?

Will my performance on the GRE give them an idea of how well I can help others in counseling? Will it tell them whether I can develop my own studies or wisely critique another’s?

Have you seen this cartoon yet? Far too true.

A favorite that I’ve seen floating around Facebook alot.  Source: I think is WeKnowMemes.com Please correct me if I’m wrong. 

No. It’s not designed to do that. It’s just designed to test my willingness and ability to play the game.

If I’ve already graduated from undergrad, moderate deductive competence would assume that I already possess the “high school” prerequisites they are attempting to measure, which means they aren’t interested in whether I know how to do geometry or algebra or whether I can really use “recalcitrant” in a sentence. (Recalcitrance is one of my best qualities. I don’t know why that answer never won me a job interview!)

More importantly, if they are truly attempting to measure my critical thinking and problem solving skills, they would give far more weight to the process than to the “right answer,” which tells me that they’re not even interested in my ability to think.

They’re interested in whether I can think like them. 

It’s pissing me off–not because I don’t think I can do it, but because I shouldn’t have to. Conformity shouldn’t be the gatekeeper of higher education.

Why Won’t You Stay on the Damn Pedestal?

Jennifer Lawrence has become my hero. I’ve fallen in love with her as an actress who chooses strong, fantastic, and meaningful roles. I’ve fallen in love with her as a celebrity who criticizes and rejects the ridiculous beauty standards and expectations of the media.

85th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room

It’s the most adorable middle finger I’ve ever seen! *swoons*

And I’ve just plain fallen in love with her because she’s adorable and beautiful and the type of girl I would totally date if she’d go out with me.

Have you spotted the problem yet?

I didn’t initially, but there’s another celebrity who has opened my eyes: Miley Cyrus.

How could Miley have anything to do with my admiration for Jennifer Lawrence?

Just that the whole reason why Miley is facing so much criticism for her current choices is because she used to be a kind of Jennifer Lawrence to a lot of people.

Found over on Perez Hilton. The caption really says it all about the expectations she faces.

Would Hannah Montana act like this? I don’t know. Is it fair to expect a person to remain true to a FICTIONAL personality for the rest of her life? Hannah Montana was created by screen writers. It never has been who Miley is, just who she played.

I’m talking about pedestaled celebrities. Our role models, our activists, our political compasses, our surrogate dates, our media representatives that verify our own disgust of whatever else is happening in the media—we deify them, stalk them, and hang onto their every word.

And when we discover that they’re human, that they make mistakes, that they don’t always know what they’re doing, that they change their minds, that they cave to pressure, or that they don’t agree with all of our own political or moral stances, we’re inevitably disappointed.

Devastated really.

And then we take it out on them, because it’s obviously their fault that they fell off of the pedestal we so generously bestowed upon them.

How could they? How could they do something so disagreeable when they have such a heavy influence with their position and popularity? How could they pass those messages onto children who look up to them the way we’ve trained children to look up to them?

But the question that we really should be asking ourselves is, “How could they not?”

I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with a camera in my face all of the time. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through my day knowing that thousands of other people were scrutinizing my every move in order to emulate or criticize.

That kind of pressure is insane.

Admiration is one thing, but I think we are doing a huge disservice to both celebrities and ourselves when we expect them to be the perfect example of how we should live our lives.

Miley got me thinking about how I would feel if Jennifer Lawrence was exposed by a tabloid as anorexic after all the things she’s said about rejecting the impossible weight standards others have tried to force on her.

Part of me felt that it would be tragic but understandable. Part of me felt outraged and devastated at the possibility.

I took that as a good sign—my sanity hadn’t entirely fallen asleep yet, despite the way I’d been mooning over her the last few months. I want the understanding part of me to win out. I don’t want Jennifer to have so much power over my views of the world that her own personal, human struggles and choices can devastate me.

Nor do I want her to live her life in fear of ever making mistakes because of what others (strangers) might think. That’s no way to live. Without the freedom to make mistakes, what is the value in making good choices? She deserves to have the right to make mistakes and make bad decisions—just like me.

It’s not Jennifer’s job to convince me that my body is worth taking care of. It’s not Miley’s job to show me what a healthy sexuality looks like. It’s not their job to make sure all of their personal decisions meet my approval. It’s not their job to make sure they’re only sending out the messages to the world that I want them to send out.

I hope Jennifer continues to fight the pressure in Hollywood, but not for my sake. I hope she fights the pressure for her own sake. I hope she stays true to herself, regardless of whether her fans approve or not. I hope when she speaks out in interviews about the unfair weight expectations actresses face that she does so because that’s the person she wants to be, not because she’s trying to live up to some role that someone else she’s never met has placed on her.

It’s my job to make sure that my admiration for celebrities doesn’t turn into a foisting of my own responsibility to think and make choices for myself onto them. It’s my job to make sure that I’m promoting the principles and ideas that are important to me.

To build on the famous Gandhi quote: I have to be the person I want to see in the world. And I don’t want to be the type of person that can’t handle someone I admire being a human being who makes mistakes. I don’t want to be the type of person who can’t tolerate a stranger making a personal choice that I might disagree with.

As a note, I’d like to make it clear that I’m referring to the sexual aspects of Miley’s VMA performance and the nudity in her music video for which she has been so heavily criticized. I am not diminishing or dismissing the racial issues of her performance. I think there is a huge difference between her sexual expression and her treatment of racialized people. 

We need to have a conversation about how celebrities treat other people and other groups, but it would be downright hypocritical if we didn’t also talk about how we treat female celebrities as a society and racialized performers as a society (hint: Robin Thicke isn’t being criticized for his performance with Miley. No one is mourning Beyonce’s fall from ‘role model’ status after the Super Bowl; although she certainly faced her fair share of ridiculous slut-shaming).

For more on the racial problems of the VMAs, Gradient Lair does some good pieces here and here. In her analysis of privilege in human rights campaigns, Dani Kelley links to a good article on the problematic meaning of Black bodies to highlight a White performer. And check out this post on the hypocrisy of slut-shaming and how the feminist defense has a tendency to differ based on race. All of these posts are good reads to spark some thought about privilege and race that don’t fall into the trap of slut-shaming at the same time.

If Virginity is a Myth, Then What Did He Take From Me?

Trigger Warning (obviously): Discussion of sexual abuse and purity culture. I promise I’ll have something a little lighter the next few weeks. 

Purity culture taught me that my virginity was the greatest gift I could give my husband. It taught me that losing virginity made me discardable—like used gum or dirty water. It taught me that my value lay in my purity.

Purity culture also taught me that I was responsible for men’s sexual thoughts and actions towards me. It taught me that I could prevent rape by being pure—and if I was raped, it was better for me to die than to live with my tainted purity.

When I rejected purity culture years ago, I also rejected the concepts of virginity, purity, and sexual innocence along with it. I needed to in order to begin to come to terms with my sexual abuse. I needed to be able to believe that they were just constructs—myths—in order to slough off the guilt and self-hatred that I felt over having been violated.

More recently, I’ve been trying to give myself space to access some of the deeper veins of my grief around my sexual abuse. But I found I can only name that grief with the very constructs I rejected.

Innocence. Purity. Virginity.

Certainly the innocence I was taught I’d lost is not the innocence I grieve. Feminism has done its job. I do not feel culpable in any way for what happened to me.

But there’s a different kind of innocence whose loss I feel intensely.

I’ve come to think of it as the Peter Pan innocence.

It’s what I lost when I was forced into an awareness of sexuality—a violent understanding of affection and love—at an age when I could barely understand that some people had different body parts from others.

It’s the innocence that allowed me to believe that those who claimed to love me were safe, the innocence that gave me a sense of autonomy and belonging to my body, the innocence that assured me that monsters were make-believe and nightmares weren’t true. And it was ripped away from me when I was five years old, leaving in its place a shattered little girl who convinced herself that she was bad in order to continue to believe that her spiritual leaders were good.

And just as I know that I’m not responsible for what my abuser did, I also know I’m not bad because of what he did. But the purity that I lost has nothing to do with good or bad.

It’s the purity of separation.

There are days when I feel like I carry my abuser with me wherever I go, like an invisible residue. No amount of assuring me that I’m not dirty is going to take that feeling away because the “dirty” doesn’t stem from me. It’s his dirt, his perversion. I know that, but I’m still tortured by the visceral sensations.

Sometimes it feels like I share my marriage with him—the unwanted third-party who lurks in the corner waiting for an opportunity to pop out again and remind me that my first sexual encounter was traumatizing and invasive. The beauty of consensual sex—that amazing experience of soul-sharing—is so easily interrupted by flashbacks, as if my abuser can walk into our bedroom and whisk me away to my childhood whenever he wants.

It tears me up that he was the one who stole my virginity. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the value judgments society tries to place on being a virgin or not being a virgin. Virginity, to me, has nothing to do with the hymen. It’s not an object. It’s just pre-sexuality, like pre-menstrual.

I envy the choice that others have to end their virginity.

Beautiful, romantic, irresponsible, silly, uninformed, embarrassing—I’d give anything for my first sexual encounter to be any of those—a stage of growing up and discovering my sexual self. By rights, I should have been able to choose when to end my virginity, where, and with whom. I’m sure I would have made mistakes, but at least they would have been mistakes from my choice.

But I didn’t get that choice. The end of my virginity was forced on me. My first sexual experience was forced on me.

It doesn’t matter that the patriarchal value of innocence, purity, and virginity is bullshit. What I lost goes deeper. It’s the loss of a childhood naivety, the loss of discovery, the loss of choice, and the loss of first times.

I can’t get those back, and to make matters worse, I find that I can’t even properly grieve them without the words that were used to blame me for their loss.

Perhaps one day I’ll be able to find a way to turn that grief and loss into something positive. Grief has always been a Phoenix process for me, and I’m sure this one will be the same. But right now, all I have are the tears, the rage, and the emptiness. All I have for myself and my readers this morning is the rawness of truth telling without any flowery ways of making it sound okay.

This is the grief I wasn’t allowed to feel when I was five.