Like most women I know and love, my relationship to my body has been complicated by culture. I have received confusing, demeaning messages about the purpose and worth of the female body through patriarchal religion served up every Sunday and advertisements that use the nearly naked female form to sell everything from perfume to vodka.
Throughout my adolescence, I downloaded the following shame messages about womanhood and the female body. From organized religion: there are two archetypes of womanhood: the virgin and the whore. (Don’t be the whore.) From my all-girls high school: the female body can attract the wrong attention. From the media: the good body is a perfect, emaciated body, and the good body is only good for selling things. These messages engendered fraught emotions towards my body. I never wanted to expose my body too much, but then also railed against that notion in my own mind.
Two years ago, I participated in a yoga teacher-training program in New York City. Each day began with an hour of yoga, followed by seven more hours of lessons in anatomy, nutrition, the subtle body, yogic philosophy, and meditation. With few other commitments, I had a dedicated month, over two hundred hours, to learn about, to take care of, to reckon with, and to be still with my physical self.
Through developing my yoga practice, I wanted to make peace with my body after years of struggling to be kind to it. I wanted to learn how to assert my femininity, my beauty, and my sexuality through my physicality. The hours spent learning about the capacity and wisdom of the human body began to take affect in my physical presence. My body felt less like a heavy shell that ached and tightened. I began to see it as the material manifestation of my soul.
One morning, feeling particularly in the flow, I walked to class listening to soul music in a t-shirt that barely touched waist of my leggings. It was June and already strikingly hot in the city. I’d usually throw a sweatshirt on and walk to training sweating, but to my surprise, I did not feel like covering up my body out of habitual shame that morning. I was feeling beautiful and free.
About twenty minutes into my walk, I noticed a group of construction workers staring directly at the one-inch gap exposing my abdomen. I reflexively grabbed the hem of my shirt and pulled it down. Heat spread through my cheeks and down my neck. I felt frazzled and began to walk faster. Though the men did not say anything to me, when I noticed how I had become the object of their attention, my confidence dissipated. I felt like hiding again.
How could a group of men, theoretically appreciating my body, too, snatch my confidence from me? Are we forced to choose between two extremes? Either covering up our bodies to feel safe and in-control or feeling free in our bodies and attracting unwanted attention? Though a brief and perhaps seemingly benign moment, it was a trenchant reminder that women are treated more often as objects of male desire than accepted as the agents of their bodies and lives.
Objectification of women, which is normalized amongst men and often becomes internalized misogyny in most women, is in the air we breathe. It is on the street. Cabs that pass me every day have ads for a “Gentlemen’s Club” featuring a nearly naked woman on them. Women are catcalled on the sidewalks and harassed on the subway platforms. It is in our workplaces. For instance, look at what has come to light at Uber this year, something that feels very familiar for many women working across industries. It is within our social circles: the hookup culture at college and then the dating app culture that follows.
It also permeates our politics. Just two days ago, the President complimented Caitriona Perry, an Irish journalist visiting the Oval Office on her smile, stating while he was on the phone the new Irish Prime Minister, “She has a nice smile on her face, so I bet she treats you well.”
That’s a large part of the problem. Women are expected to be nice and pretty and quiet. Being submissive and pretty makes life easier and more enjoyable for men. Many men often assume that if a woman looks nice, pretty, soft-spoken then she won’t be intelligent, decisive, angry, opinionated, discerning, or independent.
When I moved to Manhattan for the training, I was caught off guard by the forwardness and persistence of some men, while I was walking home from work, standing in a crowded subway car, or having a drink with a friend. With no invitation, men would emerge from a crowd without warning to ask me for my phone number, make a comment about what type of coffee I must like, or compliment me. They never liked my responses. No, you cannot have my phone number. No, I do not want to have a drink with you. No, I am not a “two shots of espresso” girl. No, I’m not going to stop to talk to you, while I’m on the phone with my mother.
These men did not like my resistance. They looked either hurt, shocked, or angered, when I didn’t smile or laugh. As soon as I asserted my individuality, my discernment, I could no longer be just an object in their eyes. I became an agent in the conversation, not a woman to be desired, but instead a woman, unimpressed, voicing her own desires, which did not align with their interests.
When I had recounted these stories, a male friend said to me, “I would hate for you to miss an opportunity to meet someone. You know, it took some courage for those guys to approach you.” He said this to me one month before I met Jack. We, too, met as strangers in a coffee shop when he asked if he could sit down at my table.
Jack sat down at my table. He did not ask for my phone number until the end of our conversation. He did not make a comment about my physical appearance, though he was attracted to me. I did not feel like an object.
I wasn’t saying no to potential dates because I was uninterested in finding a partner. Rather, the men that approached me on the street did so with no invitation, which made it seem like they felt entitled to interrupting me, persisting when I said wouldn’t give them phone number before I’d had time to take stock of what they were saying, and commenting immediately on my physical appearance.
Those who do not know me well might identify me as quiet, demure, soft-spoken. Those who know me well know that I am always observing and thinking, that have a lot to say, and that I am very comfortable asserting my opinions and boundaries. However, that morning as I walked to training, when I noticed a whole group of men staring at my body, I felt immediately deflated and ashamed, as though I had allowed myself to become a sexual object. I wanted to keep my body to myself and protect it.
All women in this culture collectively shoulder the burden of objectification. It affects our careers, our relationships, our sense of safety, our relationship to our bodies, and our sense of selves. It is a painful and challenging call to feminist advocacy.
To the men assuming I’d just love to give them my phone number, to the men who stared at me, making me feel small: my body, my physicality, and my uniqueness are not yours. They are not for you. I know all the advertisements with angry, naked women on them make you think that women’s bodies exist for your pleasure, but thankfully, they do not. The moments that I feel beautiful are not for your consumption.
To the men who run around calling women’s smiles nice, who mansplain in the workplace or in class, who normalize sexual harassment, I will speak clearly. That is what misogyny is made of, and I wouldn’t get too comfortable on your pedestals.
To the men who love women as whole beings, for their intelligence, in their anger, in their love, in their fear, in their opinions, in their discernment: thank you. Keep up the feminist work.
And finally, to all the women: you are strong, intelligent, and entirely perfect in your humanity. Our work requires unlearning and learning. We must shed beliefs that men have the right to take our power away, that we should diminish our light to make other people comfortable, that our beauty can be commoditized, that our self-confidence and self-esteem are dependent on other people’s evaluations. We must learn to claim our bodies as integrated parts of our whole selves. Our bodies, minds, and souls are equally sacred, needed, and beautiful.