Female Sexuality in the Trump Era

The photo of Donald Trump signing a ban on funding to organizations involved in abortions (even if just by providing information!) has been all over the net this week. That image makes me think of a recent post in a closed, all-female Facebook network – a post about abortion but also, on a deeper level, about our views on female sexuality.

One of the members of the network wrote a very naked post about her visit to an abortion clinic. She had made friends with the girl in the bed next to hers, and as they opened up to each other, it turned out that they were both there for the same reason: they had been convinced to accept sexual intercourse without protection. Both girls had felt uncomfortable, unwilling, and pressured, but had in the end given in to the man they were with. Now the girls found themselves dealing with the aftermaths of unprotected sex: not only taking that test, finding a doctor, taking time of work, enduring bleedings and pain, but also living with the choice they made.

Girl’s Globe is a global forum and some of the views  and opinions of our readers, and even members of our network, on sexuality surely differ from mine. I come from a culture where sex with no strings attached is accepted; we even learn in school how to use a condom, and why it is important to do so. So, we do learn how to practice safe sex. However, what we don’t learn is how to tackle matters like pressure, responsibility and the opinions and norms of the society. Those opinions and norms are almost always linked to the female sexuality, outlining and controlling it: be sexy, but not over the top, enjoy sex, but not too much.

Sex is still almost exclusively viewed and discussed from the male perspective. How about female sexuality and our relation to our own pleasure? Accepting female pleasure is the first step towards understanding that sex is for women as much as for men. Teaching girls not only to say no, but also to demand that which actually makes them say yes, is giving them the key to their own pleasure.

We also have the right to state our conditions – not only for having, but for enjoying sex.  

Trump has, again and again, made blunt, ignorant, and plain-out scary comments about women. Their looks, weight, figure… The example set is not exactly an admirable one. Today’s boys – tomorrow’s men – need to learn to see women as their equals. They need to understand why pressuring their partner into not using a condom is not ok. That in sex, the woman isn’t only  there to please him, but that he is also, just as much, there to please her.

What about the two girls in the abortion clinic? When leaving the clinic, they agreed on that never again would they give the power over their bodies to another person. And one of them, she wrote a Facebook post about it, a post that was read by about 2,000 other young women, and hopefully that post will make at least one girl out there confident enough to state her own conditions when it comes to her body – and her pleasure.

Fighting the perfect shape

Growing up, I was extremely skinny. Though I met parts of the ideal body image, I was always asked a lot of questions about not eating enough. Ironically, I was a massive junk food and candy eater. Grass was greener on the other side and I ached to put on weight. At least to stop the inappropriate malnutrition questions being thrown at my mother.

Puberty and certain lifestyle changes had a surprise waiting for me. I began to slowly but steadily put on weight. Surprise, surprise! I was extremely unhappy despite the fact that my wish had come true. Till I began to read and critically analyse body image, I was reduced to covering up the flab and dressing in loose fitted clothes. Finally giving in to the uneasy feelings, I wandered into a doctor’s office to get some clarity on the weight gain. Only to find out I had a health condition (Poly Cystic Ovaries Syndrome) that had certain correlations with weight gain.
Body image is a huge problem across the world. Fat shaming as well as skinny shaming is a common practice. This has led to a lot of eating disorders world over. Only off late are Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa being discussed with the seriousness they demand.

While working with media students in Hyderabad, India, I have heard a lot about the temptation to succumb to severe crash diets to get that perfect body. In India, we enjoy policing of the neighbourhood variety. A friendly neighbour who is watching the gradual weight gain drops a off-hand comment about the fat. It perhaps trigger shame and eventually crash diets. Recently, a woman in India was turned away from a store and asked to go to a gym. Similarly in London, women and men were handed fat-shaming cards. Both of these incidents had a lot of response from women speaking up about the viciousness of fat shaming in our society. The slippery slope between fat and ugly make matters worse for those struggling with confidence.

Movies, television, magazines don’t help this struggle with our body. The actresses seem to get skinnier and we aren’t even fully questioning the role of photoshop in this debate. Fortunately, actresses are speaking up about the insidiousness of the tendency to photoshop women’s bodies.

Similarly, individuals  and groups fight this downward spiral of a uniform body type through campaigns rooted in self-love. The recent #BeyondBeautyInitiative of Wear Your Voice Mag is a beautiful campaign breaking the stereotypes of ideal body type. Women of all sizes are photographed.

Similarly artists are imagining society with representation of all kinds of women. It is interesting to see women reclaim this space to assert our rights on our bodies over the right of the market to determine which body is legitimate or beautiful.

Health and weight gain

Like I mentioned above, I have a condition where I am prone to a lot of weight gain. One of the characteristics of Poly-Cystic Ovaries Syndrome is weight gain because often those women have resistance to carbohydrates and sugar. Accompanied with it are also symptoms of excessive body hair particularly on the face, arms etc. One of the biggest problems of this syndrome is the drop in self-esteem of women as they fail to meet society’s and market’s description of an ideal body type.

I am not insinuating that all women who are not skinny have health problems. It was true in my case but that is a rarity. This is another issue as we tend to talk about health issues and weight gain together. But the truth is what the bathroom scales did not tell me was that the extra weight gain or the body hair did not make me any less beautiful. Perhaps we need to fix the problem by demanding better representation in media. What we see right now is a uniformity that is appalling and misleading. Taking back our bodies is not an easy battle, but it is doable – together. And perhaps a good place to start as we enter year 2016 is to not throw the word fat around as an insult.

Featured image courtesy of Charlotte Astrid / Flickr

(Her)Story: A Revolution

Originally published on The Huffington Post

Think back to your high school’s United States history book: Remember that tiny paragraph on the women’s suffrage movement? The one-sentence descriptions on the contributions of Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of DNA, Coretta Scott King to the civil rights movement, and Eleanor Roosevelt to the New Deal policies? The absence of LGBTQ-identified women and women of color in the paragraph about the 1960s “second-wave” women’s movement?

We at Women SPEAK want to change that.

Based in Los Angeles, Women SPEAK is an organization that empowers young women to cultivate positive body image, deconstruct gender media stereotypes, and lead change in their communities. Our latest project? Redefining history into HerStory.

History has narrowly framed accomplishments, success, and innovation in the context of *his* story, mainly stories of men. We see this truth all around us: for example, in the absence of women on our currency and in the few women that are honored in commemorative spaces and public places. Women are absent in the public narratives of history in the United States and around the globe. The literal erasure of women in history has affected our perceptions of who woman are and can be.

What are the consequences? Our present reality. The absence of women in our retelling of history is seen in the gender disparity of our everyday lives. Today, women represent only 19.4% in our congressional legislature. During the 2014 Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case ruling, an all-male majority overruled the voices of all three female Supreme Court justices by exempting certain employers from providing birth control and contraception coverage through the ACA. Moreover, in spite of women graduating at a higher rate from college than men, women in the U.S. workforce face a plethora of issues: gender discrimination, a gender pay gap, and no mandatory paid maternity leave — all piling reasons that deter women from attaining positions of leadership and influence today.

Progress does not mean success. We want to change that.

We at Women SPEAK want to be part of reclaiming history to press for our stories as women and girls. This year, we’re launching HerStory at our 2nd Annual Women SPEAK Girls’ Leadership Summit, a conference that seeks to empower current and future generations of high school and college students to join our movement. HerStory is a yearlong initiative that will reclaim the historical and current contributions of women around the world through monthly production of HerStory literary zines, a yearlong mentorship program curriculum through our Women SPEAK national high school and college chapters, social media campaigns, and advocacy projects with local women’s rights organizations.

Through HerStory, we want to demand more from our history books and education. We seek to retell, recreate, and reclaim the powerful stories of women who have been critical in the formation of our world, our stories, and our communities — the stories that have for far too long been minimized, silenced, and forgotten.

We seek to redefine history through the critical lens of HerStory, a movement that not only seeks to re-envision the past, but pave a future in which women are valued equally to their male counterparts. By educating the young women of today, we hope to inspire them by telling the stories of the women before them who have created a path.

We at Women SPEAK are starting a revolution to shift our understanding of how women have changed and are changing the world.

This revolution will not be televised.

The 2nd Annual Women SPEAK Girls’ Leadership Summit will be held on Saturday, July 11 at California Polytechnic State University Pomona’s Bronco Student Center. All high school students and incoming college freshmen are invited. Registration is free. To sign up, go to www.womenspeakteam.org.

The Thin Line Between Violence and Art

When it comes to sexualisation in the media, often people respond with – “sex sells.” Although sex may sell, I often wonder at what cost? Who is footing the bill? The answer: everyone.

Sexual exploitation in advertisements affects the whole of society in one way or another.

However, women bear most of the costs and, as a result, our mental health and well-being suffers. Although much has been said on the sexualisation of women and girls in the media, sexual violence, particularly in fashion advertising, must be addressed.

In 2007, Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) published the advert below:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Many women’s rights groups and advertising watchdogs have argued that the advertisement above clearly symbolises gang-rape. Held down against her will, the woman in the image falls victim to her male oppressor while an additional three men look on eagerly, seemingly awaiting their turn. Gang-rape is a horrifying and grotesque human rights violation from which no one should ever have to suffer. Why then, is it perfectly acceptable to normalise gang rape and use it as a concept in advertisements and marketing campaigns? In response to the global public outrage, D&G withdrew the advertisement from all its publications. However, D&G insisted the image was not meant to be controversial but simply represented an erotic dream.

The fashion industry continues to push the boundaries of what is new, edgy and original. Some argue that fashion advertising is art and therefore should not be taken literally, yet I beg to differ. Take this 2012 winter collection titled ‘Shameless’ from the Dutch company Suit Supply:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

The advertisements above suggest that, by buying a Suit Supply suit, women will allow men to do whatever they desire, including sex, touching and groping and peering at our vagina’s. Suit Supply’s advertisements not only represent women as sexual slaves, but also imply that men buy suits to enhance their sexual appeal solely to women, thereby ignoring the entire homosexual population.

Some advertisements are ridiculous, stupid and extremely offensive, others are indescribable:

last image
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Considered ‘fine art’ by the fashion world, marketing executives marvelled at the degrading advertisements.

Studies show that such violent images negatively impact adolescents’ self-esteem and confidence. The continuous bombardment of violent  images on television, magazines and the internet reinforce negative gender stereotypes and normalise violence and the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

Whether deemed fine art or fashion, it is wrong and unacceptable.

On Skinny-Shaming: Not all real women have curves!

Recently, the world witnessed a surge of criticism on fat-shaming, with many plus-sized women coming out to flaunt their bodies and starting “Love Your Body” campaigns. Size zero went from an ideal body size to something women started looking at as unnecessarily and disgustingly unattainable. Marilyn Monroe became the new ‘ideal’ of a woman. Today, more women want to be like her. More runway designers are showcasing plus-size models in their shows and designing clothes for bigger-sized women. There is a new-found conception that ‘real women have curves.’

Photo credit: Stephanie London
Photo credit: Stephanie London

Though I do believe that women with curves are beautiful and that they should prize their body shapes, I do not believe that all real women should have curves. In the midst of the movement to build self-esteem for plus-size women, we often forget that we might be demeaning women who are naturally thin or have size-zero bodies.  While the world has become more body-positive, the movement to help bolster self-worth can sometimes inadvertently happen at the expense of someone or something else. In the light of body-acceptance and fighting the body ideal, it is a myth that thin women have it easy.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “skinny-shaming” is the act of demeaning someone on the basis of being ‘skinny’ or ‘too thin.’ Skinny-shaming often takes the form of a negative connotation and places guilt on one’s body, for being a certain shape and size.

“Fat-shaming” is often given the privilege of a negative act, while skinny-shaming is seen by most as essentially positive, or a phrase used to ‘compliment’ those who are thin. The truth is that skinny-shaming is just as negative as fat-shaming is.

Thin women constantly face criticism on their body sizes, and are often faced with comments such as:

“How do you manage to be so thin?”

“You could use some weight.”

“Be careful, the wind might blow you away.”

“You’re so thin, you look anorexic.”

“Why do you even need to work out?”

And worst of all:

You’re too thin to breastfeed.

If you wouldn’t call a fat woman fat, why would you want to call a thin woman thin? 

Photo credit: Allison Shaaff
Photo credit: Allison Shaaff

While skinny-shaming usually centers around female bodies, it is a fact that even men face this societal evil. A masculine body is often described to be lean, muscular and broader in structure to a female body. Thin men are called out for their weight and often told that they are “too thin for a man” or “not manly enough.” It is important that we recognize that not all men have broader frames and bodies cannot be judged relatively. Our bodies, both male and female, are our own, and shouldn’t be subject to anyone’s approval.

Personally, I have faced more criticism than appreciation on my size-zero figure. As someone who was born thin, I grew up listening to my friends complain about how “anorexic” I was. No one ever took into account that I was perfectly healthy and strong. I had relatives bring me food and friends occasionally buy me food at the mall. People constantly told me I could quit visiting the gym or keeping count of my calories. My size-zero figure became a burden on my living,  forcing me to eat more than I could. I desperately sought to attain those curves that made one a “real woman.”

After facing skinny-shaming for 19 years of my life, I now realize that I should be happy with what I have. I realize that as long as I am a fit and healthy person, no one can ask me to justify my size. I realize that I should take offense at someone passing a derogatory remark on my size. I realize that I am beautiful and that I should love my body.

Body acceptance starts from within.

We must learn to love our body, shape and size.

We need not justify our body size to anyone.

Not everything that is beautiful or feminine is curvy.

I do not need curves to be called a real woman.

For more information about skinny shaming, check out these additional links:

* Featured image credit: Flickr user Charlotte Astrid. Image listed under Creative Commons license.