As a society, we look at the female body in two completely conflicting ways. On one hand, society loves looking at half-naked female bodies. We love it so much that we put it on the advertisements all around us, place it strategically in movies and television shows, use it gratuitously in video games—bare legs and exposed cleavage and “tasteful sideboob” and glistening flat stomachs and barely-concealed buttocks. Body parts that are packaged and prepared for our consumption.
But at the same time, society hates seeing the female body. When a mother breastfeeds in a restaurant, we cringe and tell her to put her breasts away. When a businesswoman wears a blouse that reveals just a little too much cleavage, we talk about how unprofessional she is. When a schoolgirl wears a skirt that is an inch too short, we ask her to please go back home and change because she is distracting her male classmates and her male teachers, and a man’s right to not get aroused in school is much more important than a woman’s right to an education.
We ask women who dress “provocatively” why they don’t respect themselves. We ask them to be modest, to cover up a little, to “leave something to the imagination.” Yet at the same time, we don’t want things left to our imagination. When we are watching movies or advertisements, we want to see a woman’s naked body, or as close to her naked body as we can get. Sex sells. What explains this dichotomy, this love-hate relationship?
I have an inkling that it’s because society—that is to say, heterosexual men—hate women’s bodies for the very reason why they love them: Women's bodies turn them on. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with being titillated by a woman’s body. However, there is everything wrong with feeling entitled to a woman’s body. Male entitlement makes men believe that they should be able to access women’s bodies whenever and wherever they so desire. Many men in our society have been socialized to believe that women’s bodies are for their consumption, and that they deserve it—and when they are denied it, that they are the victims of cruel “friend zoning.”
But on the flip side, male entitlement also means that when they don’t want to see a woman’s body, it should be covered up for the man’s benefit. When they don’t want to get aroused—such as in a restaurant, in the workplace, or at school—they believe that women’s bodies should be removed from their sight.
It is entitlement that makes so many men believe they can tell women what to do or what not to do with their bodies. It is entitlement that leads to strict dress codes that disproportionately police women for not wearing “appropriate” clothing, and societal disapproval of public breastfeeding. Breasts, shoulders, legs, butts—those are all great to see, but only when men want to see them. When men don’t want to see them anymore, or when there is no man around to see them, then those things should be put away. And even when men aren’t the ones to explicitly police women’s bodies, even when unfair dress codes are being applied by female teachers, it still stems from this same idea: that women’s bodies serve as a “distraction” to men.
This is all part of a larger cultural attitude that overvalues male sexuality and expects women’s bodies to exist for male pleasure. The idea of a woman’s body existing in isolation, outside of the male gaze, is simply bizarre—and it’s the reason why social norms prevent women from breastfeeding in public or peeling off their shirts on a hot day, the way men often do. A woman using her body to feed a baby, or a woman unclothing her body to cool down on a hot day—these are all ways in which women are using their bodies for a purpose other than serving male pleasure. And that’s when women’s bodies become unacceptable, inappropriate, taboo.
My friend was telling me the other day about his sexual exploits, and recounting in glorious, loving detail the parts of women’s bodies he interacted with. Then, upon learning that women often walk around naked in front of each other, he immediately became disgusted. He said that was inappropriate, and asked me why we couldn’t just cover up in front of each other.
That’s the crux of the issue: the belief that women’s naked bodies should only exist if there is a male audience. That is why lesbian porn is one of the most popular searches for heterosexual men, but lesbians in real life are stigmatized by and some are even sexually assaulted by heterosexual men who wish to “correct” them. That is why so many men love looking at girls making out with each other on the dance floor, but those same men feel uncomfortable at the thought of girls making out with each other in private with no man to watch them and enjoy the show. And that is why my male friend loved women’s breasts when he was the one doing sexual acts to them, but felt disgusted at the thought of women’s breasts when they existed in a completely non-sexual context.
It seems that we are far more comfortable telling women what to do with their bodies than asking men to simply stop sexualizing women’s bodies. In the same vein, we are more comfortable telling women to lengthen their skirts to “stop boys from getting ideas and create a good work environment for male staff,” and much less comfortable telling men to stop thinking that women’s bodies are inherently sexual and therefore distracting.
Women’s bodies are not a distraction, and women’s bodies do not exist for the comfort and convenience of men. And most importantly, no one is in any position to tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. That is up to her, and her alone.
Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, is a government concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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