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.
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′
Our school, BHSEC, is an amazing place, but the harsh reality is that we’re not immune to the concerns of fourth wave feminism. It’s true that, as far as equity goes, the school’s pretty outstanding: women are heard, men respect us 90% of the time, and there’s very little stigma of free expressions of sexuality. We’re very lucky to be here and we’re pretty commendable for maintaining this atmosphere. It would be easy to say, “BHSEC is the exception to the sexist norms of society” and spend all our time crusading against the rest of the world but, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The problems that feminism has to fight do not belong just to men, society, and the rest of the world. There is a body image epidemic or at the very least a sickness at BHSEC, though by its nature we can’t know the details or scope of it.
It makes sense, really. The emblematic BHSEC student is hardworking and self-motivated and pays close attention to societal assumptions. Furthermore, there’s something of a contagious aspect: as disorders become more and more common, the expectation for how skinny we think we should look gets higher and higher. After all, BHSEC has many very thin girls, and it can be difficult to resist internalizing the pressure to “measure up,” as it were. I’ve struggled with disordered eating myself, and it’s really difficult at a place like BHSEC. At such a body-positive, activism-minded school there’s a sort of paradoxical stigma to falling victim to constructed standards of what pretty should look like when there’s so much pressure to project self love.
When I was practicing some pretty unhealthy habits—restricting my eating and purging—I was terrified of what people might assume. I’d think, “I hope to God no one knows. What would people say?” There were questions I had once asked, before experiencing these habits firsthand: “Why would someone do that to herself just to be pretty?” “Why can’t those people have the strength to not give a fuck what other people think?” and so forth. I’m recovering, but I still wince at the almost evangelical expectations of how we’re supposed to see ourselves. However introspective we are, however critically we examine the media, we can’t be impervious and we shouldn’t blame the victims. BHSEC is a school full of beautiful girls and people looking for ways to channel their stress: some people are going to internalize unrealistic standards. It may seem like it’s an unsolvable problem: nobody is actively putting pressure on girls to be skinnier, so what are we supposed to do about it?
For one thing, we can make an effort to understand and to de-stigmatize the behavior. I am by no means suggesting that we should start to think that eating disorders are okay, but disdaining it is adding insult to injury. Since a large part of the disorder is situated in social pressure, judging people for it is unproductive and potentially hurtful. It may be hard to identify with if you’re a size 0 and can eat two Adinah’s sandwiches in one sitting, but the pressure at such a beautiful-girl-heavy school like BHSEC is real. Even if we can’t make the problem go away, we can at least try to make it less painful by being supportive and sympathetic. This does not mean forcing Oreos on anyone; that only makes things worse. Just listen and commiserate.
The other thing we can do is remember that there’s a lot of work to be done within BHSEC. We don’t have to perfect ourselves before we can look outwards but we should bear in mind that BHSEC is a work in progress. Math classes are still largely dominated by male voices, there are still biases about sexual expression in both directions, and, still, girls feel that they need to meet ridiculous standards to be beautiful. BHSEC is a wonderful place with such a supportive, forward-thinking culture, but, even though we’ll never be perfect, we need to remember to try.
This post was written by an upperclassman at our school, who wishes to remain anonymous.
A couple months ago, as STAGE was just getting its feet on the ground here at BHSEC, we spent a few days asking students (and a few teachers) what they need feminism for. The responses spread across a huge range of issues, and came from people with varying degrees of exposure to and knowledge of the feminist movement. One thing was clear though – lots of people need feminism!
The “Who Needs Feminism?” Project was begun by 16 women of Professor Rachel Seidman’s Women in the Public Sphere course at Duke University, and has gathered responses from people across the globe.
The word “feminism” no doubt triggers a hundred different images in your head, and sadly for many, a good portion of them are likely to be pretty nasty. In today’s world, feminism has become something of a dirty word. A terrible stereotype of the feminist has emerged: she’s ugly and resentful, she’s a dyke, a misandrist, a bitch, she’s running around without a bra and waiting to yell at you for looking at her tits, she’s bitter, fanatical, and she can’t take a joke. The resistance against feminism can be overwhelming, and it comes from men and women, young and old, for a variety of reasons. Those reasons are complicated, important, interesting, and a little ridiculous. Undoubtedly, we will talk about them at length on this blog.
But for now, let us say this: We are here as young people of the world who are confident in their choice to identify as feminists. We are here as feminists who want to talk, intelligently and rationally, about making a more just world for the children who are growing up into it. We are here as students and people who are invested in bringing about equality for genders, so that people of all genders can be freed of the restrictive expectations and stereotypes of the gender binary, imposed upon them based on a simple accident of their birth.
We understand the difficulty of the job ahead of us; It is particularly hard to write about feminist issues because it is hard to be passionate and ardent while simultaneously being composed and articulate. It is hard to uncover an injustice without seeming hostile and bitter. The job of the activist is to deftly navigate the fine line between ranting and inspiring, exposing inequality while still making the cause accessible to all. It’s a tough gig. A professor of mine once wrote on my paper that I needed to “dial back the ire.” At first I balked at this. Then I realized how true it was. It is incredibly difficult, and incredibly important, to write with passion, but without ire.
Writing about feminism can also, at times, feel like shouting into a vacuum. It feels like everyone who will agree with you already does, and everyone else is immovable. When an injustice seems glaringly obvious, it can be exhausting to spoon-feed someone Feminism 101. It is draining to have to hold people’s hands and prove to them that feminism is not some massive conspiracy theory in a world where two thirds of the world’s illiterate are women and we are still arguing over the definition of rape. And we forget, too easily, that some people do not come from backgrounds that supported critical thought about gender politics. And when we forget this, we forfeit the opportunity to engage those people in the ongoing conversation that is feminism.
Feminism is for everyone, and if we believe that, we must be willing to commit to rational discourse, no matter how frustrating or fruitless it may seem. As feminists, we will scream and rage at the heartbreaking realities of living in a world that is, all too often, overwhelmingly misogynistic. And then we will check ourselves, gather our thoughts, and figure out how to fix it. You can’t make the world a better place by yelling at it. And you can’t make the world a better place by grumbling about what a dumbass you think everyone who disagrees with you is.
Another challenge of feminism is a direct result of its scope. Feminism involves everyone. “Feminist issues” are men’s and women’s issues, and so they are simply people’s issues. So how does one speak to and for an overwhelmingly diverse group of people, each with their own, unique experience with gender and feminism? None of us, the writers of this blog, can speak for all women or all men. We will write as individuals and we will be forthcoming and considerate of the specific perspective we have of the world. We promise to be cognizant of the privileged position we are in as American citizens and New York City residents and educated youth, and we promise to constantly engage our faculties of self-awareness to this end. In return, we expect readers to respect the work we are putting forth. Some of it will be creative and emotional, some of it will be intellectual and analytical. All of it will be honest and genuine.
Our hope is that this blog becomes a part of a cogent and productive discussion about feminism today, feminism for young people, and feminism as a powerful force in the world. The blog will be a space for all our members to voice their opinions about specific feminist issues, and to voice their unique perspectives.
This is how we are setting the stage.
Isabel Cristo and Priya Dieterich