The boys I hookup with hate asking questions. We’ve all sat in health class and listened to Mr. G describe consent as an ongoing conversation, But questions like “Do you like this?” and “Would you do X?” and “Is this okay?” and “Did you finish?” are questions no one ever even thought to ask me until just this past year. If our hookup culture is anything, it is notoriously silent on all fronts. In sexual encounters where this culture of silence feels most prominent, I have this image of myself that pops into my head wherein I am just a trash can with my name scrawled on it in sharpie. I can’t talk, I can’t move, I can only hold things. I call it a sexual receptacle.
The first time I conjure up this image I am in tenth grade, making out with my boyfriend when he starts to push on the top of my head. At first I think maybe this is just him trying to be sexy–a misguided attempt to be hot by being rough. But he keeps pushing, and it’s not painful or uncomfortable and I don’t feel unsafe, it’s just constant–almost in the background. And I realize that he thinks he is posing a question. To him, this is equivalent to asking politely for a blowjob. I silently push back, a firm “no,” holding my lid tightly shut.
The second time this happens, I am in the middle of a subway car on my way to a party, talking to an upperclassman who wants to know whether he has a shot with my friend. I tell him I think she might be interested in someone else, and he looks dejected for a minute before leaning in and kissing me. I pull away, refusing his offer. He looks at me, vaguely surprised. I stare back. He leans in again and I, pushed back against the wall of the car, reluctantly oblige, my lid pried open.
A few weeks later I am with the same boy at a different party. I am talking with friends when he approaches and puts his arm around me. I walk away, pretending to go join another conversation across the room. He follows me a moment later and drapes his arm back across my shoulder. I silently shrug it off, give a small smile and pretend I need to use the bathroom. I spend the rest of my night dodging eager arm attached to clueless guy, once again stuck in the position of having to defend my space.
In too many of my sexual encounters, verbal conversation seems replaced by a kind of sexual charades–clarity and consideration sacrificed out of fear that talking will ruin “the mood.” That rocks though, because I hate “the mood,” because a lot of the time “the mood” is absolutely toxic. A lot of the time, “the mood” seems to promote unwilling silence and and utter lack of interest in the other person’s comfort. I hate the mood because the mood makes me a receptacle: ready and eager to give you head, something to do with your tongue or your arm. Slowly, though, I am learning not to take shit from the boys I hook up with–to talk to them and demand that they talk to me. With words, not actions.
There are certain things that we hear about throughout our lives, and we know they are real, but we don’t truly comprehend how real they are. Although it would be nice to discern hardship by reading about it, or by listening to people talk about their experiences, we are a self-absorbed species. We perceive the world through the lens of our own experiences, and this hinders us from relating to people who we differ from. Ultimately, we are only mindful of the hardships that we have experienced first hand. I’ve always considered myself fairly empathetic, but I’ve learned that the best listener may never be able to perceive the most seemingly trivial pain. We cannot fathom the severity of anything until it applies to us directly. We cannot judge people, because each person is composed of different experiences that create their identity. I realized how hard it is to understand other people’s experiences, when I felt like no one would ever understand what I had experienced. No matter how clearly I described the fear that penetrated each bone in my body while it was happening, and the disbelief and powerlessness I experienced right after, no one could play it over and over in their minds as easily as I could. No one could understand how this was the tip of the iceberg- why this broke me in half the way that it did. I was alone, trapped in an indelible memory.
I was tempted not to call it rape. When he told me that he thought I wanted it, for a second, I considered that I made it seem that way. I thought, maybe I should have been clearer. But then I thought, how much clearer could I have been, I said no… I said stop… He told me that I shouldn’t let something so little ruin “what we have,” so for a moment I thought that I was being weak, and that I was pitying myself. I told him that he violated my body and didn’t take me seriously, and he told me that I could have pushed him away. He told me that if he knew I would react this way, he would have never done it. Implying that rape is acceptable, as long as the girl doesn’t react. That’s when I started to think, maybe I should let this go. If I don’t call this rape, if I call this a miscommunication, then I won’t have to suffer. I thought to myself, I’m strong enough to pretend this didn’t happen and go on with my life. Me and him have been hooking up for the past month, so it was normal for this to happen… right? Thankfully, I now realize that I am a victim of rape culture.
Most people have heard of rape, but “rape culture” is something that is not discussed as frequently. Rape culture fosters people to blame themselves, to believe that rape is warranted, and to disregard rape. This culture enables rapists to go unpunished- 97% of rapists, to be exact. Once I learned about rape culture, I understood why I was rationalizing a foul act that could never be excused. In Caroline Kitchens’ essay, “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria,” she shares the guilt she experienced when she told a trusted friend that her roommate’s boyfriend raped her, and was asked, “You were drinking, what did you expect?” (Kitchens). Other people that she chose to confide in asked her if she was wearing something provocative or if she had done something to cause the assault. Interrogating the victim on his or her actions perpetuates the notion that the victim could have done something different to avoid being raped. Kitchens writes, “These questions about my choices the night of my assault — as opposed to the choices made by my rapist — were in some ways as painful as the violent act itself.” The after math of rape does not have to be as painful as it was for Kitchens, but we live in a society that blames women for being assaulted. Living in a society that overlooks women has made it difficult for me to accept that I was a victim of sexual assault.
The thoughts going through my head were similar to Ellie’s, a student at Vassar College who experienced disappointment when she did not receive acknowledgment of the rape she reported. The college decided that there was not enough evidence to prove that the perpetrator was aware she was not in a state of consent, so he never experienced ramifications. Ellie was not upset because she wanted him to suffer, she was upset because of the way the administration handled her situation. She writes,
“I wanted to feel safe and okay on this campus, but I didn’t want to do anything that was going to ruin his life or hurt him… (referring to the administration) By not placing this at the forefront of their agenda, something that would help alleviate the pain that victims of rape and sexual assault experience, it sends a lasting message that these issues are unimportant. Everything about this process was ultimately cold, sterile, and terrifying, and I reached a point in the process where I had to ask myself: am I more afraid of my perpetrator or this school?” (Amicucci)
Ellie was looking for acknowledgment of the pain she was suffering, and in turn she received disdain and neglect. She was brave enough to report an incident that shook her entire life, and in return she was shamed by her peers and discredited by the institution she invests herself in. The pain she suffered and continues to suffer was dismissed by the administration, expressing that the College does not acknowledge the severity of sexual assault. The decision to dismiss Ellie’s appeal must have made it even harder for her to accept the incident and find justification in her sorrow. This is why I decided not to report my incident.
I continuously doubt myself and find myself justifying my perpetrators actions. I often need friends to remind me that what happened was cruel and unacceptable. So when my friends told me that I needed to report my offender to protect other girls, I half-heartedly agreed. I knew they would find it selfish, so I didn’t immediately tell them that I am not going to report the incident. As Ellie expressed, I do not want to ruin my perpetrator’s life, because I would forever live in guilt. If I were to report my rapist and receive publicity, there would be people who would make me feel remorseful. The justice that Ellie sought was unfulfilled, so why would my situation be acknowledged? I have no “evidence,” and my perpetrator is an athlete, so I am certain that there would be no retribution. At first I felt guilty for deciding not to file a report, but as I learn about rape culture, I am realizing that the decision is out of my control. I cannot report the incident because I am afraid of the people who will detest me; I am afraid of an administration that will disappoint me. But primarily, I still do not entirely believe that I was raped. There are parts of me that still believe it was my fault, that believe I am over-analyzing, and that believe he is not a rapist. I often look up the definition of rape, as a way to verify my experience. Rape is defined, as “vaginal intercourse by force, without consent, or with a victim whom the perpetrator knows is mentally disabled, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.”
“Sexual misconduct is defined as various violent and/or non-consensual sexual acts. Silence, passivity, acquiescence, or lack of active resistance does not constitute or imply consent on its own. In addition, previous participation in sexual activity, however recent, does not indicate current consent to participate, and consent to one form of sexual activity does not imply consent to another form of sexual activity.”
Both of the provided definitions explicitly state that under the conditions of my experience, I was raped. There is no way around it- my perpetrator violated the sexual misconduct policy of my University. I have read through all 18 pages of the “student gender-based/ sexual misconduct policy,” and I am happy with the detailed investigation and care my Univeristy claims to provide for situations like my own. Unfortunately, these definitions do not suffice. As a victim of rape culture, I am stricken by impotence, and cannot accept that I was raped.
As I live and breathe the effects of my experience, I continue to ponder the question: why? I cannot fathom how any human being could have the capacity to mercilessly violate another being, and why rape has become so prevalent. Psychologically, people often have sex to feel desired, not even because they physically want to experience sexual intercourse. (Radwan) Rapists believe that they are satisfying their sexual desire, but they are actually attempting to achieve a desire they are unconscious of. Some of these unconscious desires could be expression of power, compensation, regaining control, feeling superior to the opposite gender, or revenge. My perpetrator did not believe that he raped me. There is no way of knowing his intentions, but I believe that he had an ulterior motive he was not conscious of. This does not excuse my rapist’s actions; this merely aids me in understanding why this happened to me. Rape is so common because we live in a patriarchal society that encourages men to assert their sexual dominance over women, as a way to feel established and gain control over their lives. Rape culture causes victims to believe that they motivate their offenders to be rapists, but the victim is never responsible. The victim is the vessel in which the rapist projects his or her own motivation. I wasn’t raped because I shouldn’t have trusted him. I wasn’t raped because I acted like I wanted it. I wasn’t raped because I didn’t push him away. I wasn’t raped because I needed to learn a lesson. I was raped because he’s a rapist.
Kitchens, Caroline. “It’s Time to End ‘Rape Culture’ Hysteria.” Time. Time, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
Amicucci, Elanor. “An Open Letter to the Administration of Vassar College: I Have NOT Forgotten.” Boilerplate Magazine. Boilerplate Magazine, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
Radwan, M. Farouk. “The Ultimate Source for Understanding Yourself and Others.” Why Do Men Rape Women. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
I., and Introductio. 04.130 STUDENT GENDER-BASED/SEXUAL MISCONDUCT POLICY Authority: Chancellor (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Why do I write these words? Pry up old scabs that ooze dark memories? I needed to write this article as a declaration of self; I refuse to be boxed into the black and white caricature that we depict rape and its victims with.
There are an infinite amount of responses that one can take after being assaulted. My response to a night that was filled with smoke, beer, and a boy much too old for me was–if I’m being honest– to deny and bury the night under my thick skin. But I am revisiting that night not to preach to you all but for myself. It is time that I recognize the significance of this event, for recognition is my first step towards true growth. Along with self-recognition I hope my story and thoughts allow for others to have the courage to search for an identity beyond the role of the helpless victim many of us feel compacted into after assault.
Far too often, I believe we read statistics in newspapers, blogs, and pamphlets and think these numbers are not applicable to our own lives. I fear that we have confined rape to the image of a helpless girl, a dark alley, and a hooded stranger. But we forget that incidents of assault, such as mine, are often committed in far more complex and challenging moments. These moments are committed in what I call the gray zone.
Let’s define the gray zone: it is anything and everything. It is an intimidating abyss that houses everything from glances on the subway, touches that make your shoulders tense, to sex that you don’t think should have happened. The gray zone is not talked about on the news when they display wanted posters and warn women not to walk alone– but the gray zone is the face of rape that many of us have experienced. These incidents haunt us in our homes, soon-to-be colleges, and should be safe havens. Far too often people we believed trustworthy commit these gray zone incidents. In this territory men and women, including myself, have found ourselves trying to navigate through an experience that we cringe at but don’t know how to label. Let me be clear I now recognize that these “incidents” are and must be deemed rapes and assaults. But, our society has so tweaked the words “rape and assault” that I didn’t know how to fit such heavy words into my life’s narrative. I knew something was wrong but didn’t know how to speak of it. I ultimately tried to suppress the incidents only succeeding in feeling unable to breathe. I felt trapped by my moment but could not find the support to feel safe and secure while adding victim to my life’s vocabulary.
My gray zone rape occurred at a party. I remember the smell of minty hookah and the sweat of the dancers that swarmed on the floor. The man, let’s call him X, was friendly and mysterious. We danced but I was not necessarily looking to hookup that night. When I blew smoke into his face I found my lips covered by his. We made our way to a wall and his hands found his way into my underwear. He suggested we find a room, I won’t deny that I was excited by this older prospect and led him to the adjoining room. The details you need to know next are that:
1) I was much younger than him.
2) Being a virgin, I told him at the beginning of the hookup I did not want to have sex.
3) When he went inside me I did not say stop and this makes me cringe to this day. I, outspoken, confident, secure girl could not find the breath to form the word “No”.
Today I am left thinking that my silence permitted a moment that has stained the quilt of my life. Can you understand how this feels? To have a moment that took no longer than 15 minutes leave an impact so strong that you cannot bear to bring it up to your mother for fear that it would break her heart? To have one moment make you feel for the first time helpless and out of control? This is the first time I have been able to speak about this incident since its occurrence a year ago and now I stand on the street unable to breathe.
One moment, one night overwhelmed me with a pity for my own victimized self and I felt disgusted. Do you know what it is like to feel self-disgust and blame yourself despite knowing that he is the one to blame? He was the one that did not listen to my words. He was the one that had sex with a minor. He was the one that neglected to use a condom. He left me alone to spend my hard-earned money on a $50 dollar Plan B pill. His actions caused me to go to the clinic where I had to endure test after test and sequentially treatment after treatment. He will forever remain the man that caused my best friends to look at me with pity; the label “victim” slapped on me like a sticker. I am blameless yet I live with the consequences. When we hear stories like mine we forgot one thing, these moments of violence last only minutes, but it is the aftermath that changes our lives.
I still fear that the rest of my life will be tainted with this one moment. That one day I will sit in a therapist’s office and learn that the root of all my problems can be traced back to this one moment in a dark room. I myself do not yet know how much this moment will affect my future; and I doubt that I will ever learn. Do I judge this gray zone assault as life changing or simply a significant part of my story? Did this one night change my identity or is it possible to simply forget? Readers please try to share my pain. I need someone to recognize that this man was able, in the course of one night, to make me doubt myself so incredibly as I suddenly became the victim that I read about in statistics.
Yesterday as I was trying to write this post, I realized that I was a victim. I wept openly on the shoulder of my best friend. I mourned for my younger self. I cried, shook and grieved as I recognized that I must acknowledge that I was violated and thus a victim. It took– and still takes– so much pain to admit this, to admit that I was one of “those girls” because I just want to be myself. But I am gradually reckoning that being one of “those girls” is the last thing I should be ashamed of. We are girls (and boys) that have surmounted and are continuing to survive a moment that capsized the boats of our identities. I cannot stress enough to you all the self doubt and insecurity this incident provoked within me– a girl so normally sure of herself. But a year later I am realizing that I am still my confident, self-loving, and life-loving self. That night surely shook but eventually strengthened my security in my community and myself.
I still refuse to be the victim. I personally cannot adhere to the label– it does not fit within my life. I hope that it gives warmth and safety to others but it makes me feel like someone other than who I know myself to be. I hope you do not finish reading this account pitying the fact that I became “that girl”. Recognizing that I became “that girl” was the hardest part of this experience. But I ultimately realized that “that girl” encompasses so many other experiences besides the pitied victim. The gray zone makes us all into “that girl” but in varying shades and tones. I refuse to be tiptoed around and viewed as helpless prey. I am strong. I survived a situation that no one should endure but I grew from it until I became the woman who now writes these words with the hope of offering an alternative to those feeling helpless and isolated. While we might encounter an experience that changes our lives, we cannot feel as if there is only one character to become after an incident of rape and assault. There are so many different paths we can take after the worst occurs. I now declare myself to be a survivor, and I survived so you and I can grow together from my truth.
I was 14. I was sleeping. You grasped my ass. Still dazed I saw nothing just heard the sound of feet running up the stairs and chuckles fading. I tried to go back to sleep but something was wrong. I felt wrong. I drifted up the stairs and into the girl’s bathroom where I stood clustered by my middle-school friends whose life stories I could recite without a moment’s hesitation. And still I hesitated: “Someone just grabbed my butt”. I said it to a crowd but the words felt as if spoken to a cave inhabited only by echoes. Foreheads raised and eyes crinkled for a second “are you okay?” I brushed the question off as one does to a mosquito “It’s fine, just weird”. I moved into the hallway, gazed at nothing and suddenly the vacuum of emptiness that had opened now yawned wider and filled with an immediate rush of panic. My body had just been felt by another. My choice never given a chance. I felt scared. In a house of more than 20 people, I had never felt more alone.
The apology you gave; the teachers had to force it out of you. The boys were put all together in one room and confronted with the choice: The boy who did it must come forward or everyone will be punished. You conferenced with your band of boys about what to do. I sat quarantined in a room rocking in a chair. I tried to soothe myself, lull myself into an abyss of peace; but I could not stop replaying my flesh being pinched by a faceless hand. Do you know that I wept? I wanted comfort but could not bear anyone’s touch. The teacher came up and said that you had been identified and it was over now. I went back downstairs. Everyone rushed to my side and asked if I was ok. You didn’t come forward. I just wanted to talk. I just wanted to ask “why?” What made you think it was funny? Did you not think it might be wrong? You heard me sobbing in the hallway, why did you not come clean then? All I needed was to put a face to that hand that pinched, grabbed and clawed. Two years later, at a party, you were leaving and tried to hug me goodbye. I cringed. You asked “why?”. You never answered my questions and now it was my turn to leave you without response. I shrugged, smiled and walked off. You keep trying to contact me. I always cut you short. I leave texts un-answered. Sometimes I feel bad. Other times I feel indignant; why do you think you have a right to repair a friendship that you so unchangeably fucked? You’ve now asked me again to pardon you. You made me play the victim. The role of the victim had always been foreign and now so uncomfortably personal. I needed you to respect my body enough to come forward and tell me that it was you. I needed you to not make me feel ashamed, not force me into the open longing for a place to hide. I needed you to not make me feel alone. I need feminism because that one touch violated my safety and forced me to realize that a friend I loved was the cause of an oppressive self-hate. I don’t forgive you.
by Emma Morgan-Bennett ’16
Exciting news to share: A blog post we ran last month, called Why I Don’t Model by Priya Dieterich, was recently republished by Huffington Post! Check it out! Priya will be interviewed about it tomorrow (Wednesday April 30th) on HuffPost Live at 10:55AM/EST, if you want to hear some more about the piece!
February 11 marked the launch of Holla 101: An Educator’s Guide to Street Harassment from the brilliant people over at Hollaback! In celebration of the launch, STAGE hit the streets and held our own Chalk Walk, in an effort to reclaim our city sidewalks. It was cold and wet but completely empowering! We will be doing another Chalk Walk on May 8th, with more chalk and less parkas.
Thank you to everyone from STAGE who participated!
I remember a six-month period, at age 11, when I was obsessed with the Victoria’s Secret Angels. I looked at those women’s perfectly tanned bodies — skinny goddesses in their itsy bitsy panties and with cleavage so extreme I wondered how they did not suffocate on their own boobs; yet all I wanted was to become one of them. Barely out of elementary school, I had already been sucked into the game of “if I only I could have.” If only I could have skinnier thighs, more defined cheekbones, even lighter skin, then I would be like the girls in Glamour, Vogue, and America’s Next Top Model. All the teenage-self-love books in the world always assure us young girls that wanting to be part of the fashion industry is a phase of self-hate we’ll eventually evolve out of. For me it went a step further as I was scouted during the 7th grade by a modeling agency. This initiated the daunting prospect that I could actually be a part of this shiny, dreamlike, and completely intimidating industry.
The complexity of my feelings towards being sucked into this world of modeling starts within my family. I have been raised by incredibly liberal parents. My dad, surprisingly, loves that I model and has taken to showing my photos to all our family friends, which makes me uncomfortable. This thanksgiving our dinner ended with a huge argument when he tried to showcase an entire gallery and I protested. My die-hard feminist mother has the opposite perspective. She, though she has never spoken it out loud, is wary of the fashion and modeling world (let’s just call it beauty industry). I understand her opinion. How can you support an industry that is founded upon the idea that you are never good enough? But this did not stop my eagerness to be a part of this corruptly beautiful industry. When spotted by this agency, I could not stop my eagerness to jump and prove that I deserved a chance to become someone.
When my mother and I arrived at the agency a woman came and asked what sports I played, how tall the doctor thought I would be and what my shoe size was. She seemed unimpressed but the woman who originally scouted me kept urging her to take me. They continued to hold a discussion over my head, debating whether I would be of any use to them in this industry, while I sat with as straight as a back as I could manage in order to avoid belly rolls. They ushered me out the door saying that I would be kept in their books. I have only heard from them once in the past three years. I was spotted once after by another significant agency, and this time dismissed even sooner. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel heartbroken. Eventually a family friend who’s a photographer started doing photoshoots with me, insisting that if I wanted to take modeling seriously I needed to learn my angles. I cannot tell you how many times he told me to suck my stomach in, push my chest out and pucker my lips even more.
Flash forward to the present day and I am more involved in the beauty industry and less certain over whether I should be. I have a constant job with one store for which I do two or more photoshoots a month. This store has become a certain type of home for me, with a very professional air. The people who work there are lovely yet it is always in the back of mind that I would be fired if I were to gain weight or do something with my own body that did not fit the store’s image. Ultimately, no matter how much they like me, I am a tool used to make their store’s products look appealing. Therefore if I myself become commercially unappealing then I have no use to them, it is a practice of objectification but those are the rules of the game.
Last photoshoot I was asked to take off my shirt and bra and just wear a hoodie that left my cleavage and stomach exposed. When I hesitated to take off my top the 20 year old male model that I was working with me admonished that “Sweetie if you’re going to model you have to get real comfortable with being naked”. After this remark, off came my shirt, and while I felt am not comfortable since I feel as if the resulting photographs were too exposing and mature I have no legal rights to keep them from being used. These experiences are completely degrading and make me feel incredibly vulnerable but within modeling there exists many moments of fun and oddly enough, empowerment. While many people feel that models are stripped of their voices when in a photoshoot I feel a type of freedom and power. I have the ability to be whatever type of character I choose in photos and it is amazingly fun playing dress-up with all their clothes and make-up. At the same time I’ve become dependent on them for they are the key-hole to the industry I want to be a part of. Whenever I stop by the store they ask if I’ve been signed yet and since I haven’t been they encourage me to. To get signed means to enter the bigger industry of fashion where I’d be constantly going to bookings where some of them I’d get chosen to model and most of them I’d be told “no”. If I chose to make a career out of modeling I’d need to lose 2 inches off my 27in waist in order to fit the requirements. I would also have to be willing to put off college since a full time career as a model and pursuing a degree is nearly unheard of. Reading all of the requirements right now makes me think I’m crazy for wanting to do it but that has not stopped me from setting up a meeting with an agency this spring. I believe I entered a world in which everyone is addicted to. As models, we all know that we are in an industry that takes advantage of us and sometimes simplifies us only to our bodies, yet there is also the community that you are offered and the constant empowerment of knowing that you are what people want see and therefore once you taste a little bit of the industry you desire to submerge your whole self into it.
This writing is not to brag about all of the opportunities I have been blessed or some would say cursed with. This piece is not to rant about how awful the whole industry is. It’s fucking complicated and that is what is noteworthy. I feel beautiful and confident, and modeling has helped me embrace and love my body. I feel comfortable in my 5’11 frame as I stroll down NYC streets. This is in part due to having a job where I am paid because I am thought of as what people want to see. But I am also aware that when I stroll down the street I have become so self-aware that I “put on my face” which means I suck in my cheeks, open my eyes wider and slightly pout. Modeling has not solely made me more confident, It has induced a constant self awareness of my physical appearance. I constantly stare at myself in the mirror practicing my faces, and promising to eat better so I can finally rid myself of my food baby.
I am here to tell you that it is not easier on the other side of the camera. I do not recognize my own body in photos, I despise how I have zoned into the tiniest flaws that cover my body, I cannot recall a time before modeling when I compared myself so constantly to others. Modeling contradicts my moral compass about women, because as a feminist I believe that we all should value ourselves based on internal not external characteristics. One would think that as a feminist I should be able to walk away from this industry knowing that it is for the better and ethically I am standing against an industry renowned for casting aside the hollow bodies of self-destroyed women. Yet I still will continue modeling partially due to being addicted to the empowerment and confidence I am provided with but also because modeling is something I love, enjoy and am grateful for being offered a chance in. I dwell in an intersection between these two identities of modeling and feminism, each of these affect who I am. Ultimately feminism is a mindset that I believe will carry and which will challenge me throughout life. At the same time, while modeling is a phase in my life that will ultimately fade away, it has significantly affected and helped developed my views on beauty and the social pressure to cater to a standard of commercial beauty. Without being allowed access into the beauty industry I never would have developed these perspectives which now affect my view on how beauty should function in our society. I have been allowed access into a space where two worlds of opposite spectrums have collided; this has offered me the opportunity to further challenge and develop my moral beliefs on beauty’s role in the future of feminism, for this I am grateful.
by Emma Morgan-Bennett ’16
On the train a few weeks ago, a man next to me asked, “Do you model?” Caught off guard, I laughed a little and told him no. “Why not? You could,” he persisted. I was tempted to set him straight and say, “No, you’d be surprised. I really couldn’t.” Instead, I smiled and opened the book in my lap. This is the story I could’ve told him:
A few months ago I was contacted by a scout for a modeling development agency. Intrigued, mostly by the money-making potential, I set up an appointment to see if this was really possible. First, my mother and I met with a man who was screening candidates for L, the woman in charge, sending in only the tall enough, pretty enough, serious enough candidates. He asked us if we had any concerns, and we brought up a potentially deal-breaking question: “Will you ask me to lose weight?” In a superb non-answer, he launched into a spiel about his daughter, a successful young model, who loved the business so much that the sacrifices and effort were worth it. His justification was this: You can eat all the cake you want when, in five or ten years, you’re too old to model anyway. It was a reasonable proposition, and I thought to myself, You could do that. For enough money, you could forego pasta and desserts.
He sent us in to meet L, who said she “loved my look,” but was, justifiably, worried that I didn’t have “a passion for the industry.” I’m not starstruck by supermodels or excited by high fashion and I didn’t pretend to be. In fact, I am disturbed and angered by the way beauty is presented and sold as standard, inflexible, and ultimately unachievable. I didn’t tell her this, of course. I didn’t tell her that what I am actually passionate about is counteracting the volatile messages we send to girls about how they should think of and treat their bodies.
When we brought up the question of weight loss with L, she took my measurements: hips 38, waist 26, chest 31. Writing these numbers down, she said to me “Well, you’re too small to be a plus size model.” While my mother and I glanced at each other, amused and stifling laughter, she continued, “but that’s where you’re measuring right now. A short model would have to have 34 inch hips, but since you’re so tall you might get away with 35.”
Throughout my childhood I was told that I was too skinny — people assumed that I was sick, relatives fretted over me at meals, doctors instructed me to eat extra fatty foods. The fact that my hips measured like a plus size model was first hilarious, and then a little horrifying. Thinking of all the girls and women who have said to me, “God, you’re so skinny, how do you do it? I wish I could look like that,” and hearing that my body “measures plus size” according to the modeling industry, I realized how heartbreakingly true it is that our standard image of beauty is unattainable. I was also reminded that if I entered this industry, I would become a part of the media machine that brainwashes girls and women into believing in that standard of beauty.
L likened the regimen of a model to that of an Olympic athlete. She said they were doing all the same things–exercising, eating healthily. And then she asked if I exercised regularly. I told her I run track, but I that I wasn’t in season then. When I am in season, my legs and butt don’t get smaller, they get bigger, more muscular, and I told her this. “Yeah,” she nodded, “we do have a couple girls who are runners, and it is a problem.” But models are just like Olympic athletes, right? I guess not like Olympic track stars.
Finally she asked me if I was willing to try to “get those measurements down” (no one in that office ever simply said “lose weight”). I have heard the horror stories about eating disorders among models, about girls starving themselves and losing jobs for gaining weight. But I am comfortable with my body and had resolved that I wouldn’t let that happen to me. I started to explain just that. “Look,” I told her, “I’m not worried about the industry making me sick, because I’m confident enough in myself that I wouldn’t let it–” She scrunched her eyebrows and interrupted, “I don’t think this industry makes people sick. Making people feel insecure about their bodies… everything does that, high school does that!”
She made the fashion industry out to be just some innocent bystander, not a powerful driving force in how we conceptualize and standardize beauty. And the scary thing is, she seemed entirely convinced by her own delusion, of her industry’s innocence. I was stunned, but I was also trying to convince her that I was a viable potential client, so I didn’t fight her on it. I went on: “Really what I probably should do is talk to my pediatrician about whether or not I could safely lose that much weight.” At this too, L recoiled. “That seems a little extreme,” she protested. I told her it wasn’t, that I wouldn’t feel comfortable dieting if I didn’t check with my doctor, who for years told me I was teetering on the edge of underweight. We ended the meeting with an agreement that I would try to slim down my hips before we did anything else. If I could do this, we would talk runway training and casting calls.
That night I ate dinner at an Italian restaurant with my mom. I ordered a big pasta dish with walnuts and four kinds of cheese, and I ate every piece. With each bite, I thought about what it would mean to have to get down to, and maintain, 35” hips. For the next few days I saw everything I ate in that context. Once I realized that even the thought of measurements was making me stop myself from eating, even it was only snack foods I avoided, I abandoned the idea of modeling altogether. I didn’t want to think about food that way. I was genuinely scared by how quickly I had begun to monitor and alter my eating habits. Considering the way my body works, I should be worried about eating too little, not eating too much. According to a BMI calculator, made by the CDC, if I lost any more than 10 pounds I would be considered underweight.
I love my body. I love it especially when I’m in shape and it’s powerful, tough with muscles. I realize I am in the privileged position of having, by some trick of the genetic lottery, the type of body our society has deemed attractive. But that isn’t why I love my body. I love it because body-positivity is a radical act of love. When I was in ninth grade I was stick thin, model thin, 34-inch-hips thin. In theory I knew everyone should love their bodies, but I hated looking scrawny and weak. I love my body now because I realized that everyone should, and so I convinced myself to. I love my body because it’s strong and runs fast and does everything it’s supposed to do, not because it fits into a certain size pant.
I may have been able to shed 4 inches off my hips and stay healthy. I may have been able to find a modeling agency with more liberal standards. But I am happy I didn’t try to. For me, it wasn’t worth putting myself in that food-wary mindset every minute of every day. It wasn’t worth being complicit in an industry that I find so morally reprehensible. It wasn’t worth trying to slim down the body that I have come to love so much. There are people inside the industry who are making strides to expose and remedy the toxicity of it, and they are doing great things. But we have a long way to go. In some ways, L was right that “everything” is making us sick. The messages about our bodies come from the media and are reinforced constantly from every direction. And that makes it all of our responsibilities to reject the images of beauty pumped out by the media from all sides, and to lovingly correct those around us when they succumb to that media barrage.
By Priya Dieterich, ’14.
I started reading Lies at my boyfriend’s house while he was on his computer and a blizzard was starting to form. The first piece I finished is called “Letters to L: Paranoia and Visions”. As I read it, I kept hoping for a happy ending—a solution or at least a suggestion—telling me how to exist sanely in society as an unrelenting feminist. I didn’t get my happy ending and when I finished reading, I found myself feeling oddly numb. To process this feeling, I stared into space for a few minutes. My boyfriend noticed my strange state and asked me how the book was going; I had no idea how to respond. “Weellll, I’m learning a lot and that’s really cool but the content here is particularly personal to me so I’m getting kind of emotional but don’t worry, I think it’s a good thing…!!!” is something I could have said. Instead I announced that the book was very good.
Even writing a thank you-letter to my cousin was tricky. Lies is the type of book you give to someone in confidence, trusting they’ll be receptive to the moving, yet cringe-worthy, experience you get from reading it. For me, the way it resonated was at times isolating and even saddening. What persists throughout the entire book is an eerie pessimism; the message underlying each piece seems to suggest that all our efforts to combat social injustices will be held against us. That said, it’s incredibly important, while reading Lies, to remember that each piece comes from a place of passionate opinion and it is up to each reader to do what they will with that. The compilation represents one very concentrated feminist attitude, which may be compatible to some while others may need to take the book with several grains of salt. Regardless, Lies offers a lot to learn and an emotional experience for all.
By Julia Carlin, 14′