What if women and men got equal skin coverage?

The Academy Awards this past Sunday reminded me of the rabidly unequal skin coverage our culture consists of. As per usual, female shoulders, necklines, arms, and sometimes legs were bare, while men were all tuxedo-ed up. The tiny snippet I saw of the red carpet nauseated me. Some man was tearing women to shreds, noting this ones dress looked like a napkin and that one didn’t know how to stand or pose properly. Assessing them like pieces of meat, he and other red carpet mouthpieces enacted a type of sexism our cultures loves so well – the objectifying male gaze.

This gaze was particularly apparent in various high profile magazine covers from late 2008 that showed excessive skin. However, this skin exposure was not equally distributed between female and male bodies. In fact, the only type of skin that was heavily exposed in mainstream mags was of the “hot hetero white woman” variety.

For fully nude but ever so “artfully” covered bodies, take Jennifer Aniston on the cover of GQ:

Or, Kate Winslet on the cover of Vanity Fair:

For more partially clothed with mega skin exposure of the “hot woman” paradigm, here is Tina Fey on the cover of Vanity Fair:

Where are the naked or skin exposed men? Well, unless you look at health or body building or non-hetero directed magazines, you won’t find any. Once in awhile a you will see  “hot six pack” exposure. Or, you might see a lot of David Beckham skin (however it might be next to lots of Victoria’s).  Further, such male skin exposure is usually framed around an athleticized narrative – the body is “hot” because it is in such good shape and has such nice muscles. The body is strong and powerful.

Female skin exposure, on the other hand, does not require strong, healthy bodies. While some females exposed thus certainly are strong and athletic, the poses tend to sexualize the female body, rather than present the female as powerful or muscular. Often there is a come hither look or pose, a failure to look the viewer in the eye, and/or a suggestion that the pose is taken for (a) male(s) pleasure.

None of this analysis is new – Jean Kilbourne has, for years, done excellent work critiquing the unequal exposure of the female body, particularly in ads. Laura Mulvey’s work on the “male gaze” is also key here (see a post on this concept here).

However, the EXCESSIVE normalization of EXCESSIVE amounts of female skin is still a problem, despite all of the theory and activism that calls for a stop to such unequal exposure due to its very harmful effects on the human psyche — both female and male.

By setting up female body as the “to be looked at” body, and the male body as “the looker,” an unequal dynamic is put in place – a dynamic that promotes feelings of dominance and superiority in the looker. Moreover, this dynamic perpetuates heterenoromativiy, framed as it is as if males desire females and vice versa. Of course, there is much possibility for non-hetero or queer pleasure in media images with skin exposure, yet, when this pleasure is put under erasure or not explicity prounounced, is it really working to subvert normative concepts of gender/desire? Is such exposure “closeted”? And, if so, how could skin exposure be made less heteronormative, less sexist, and less patriarchal?

One option would be less skin exposure all around – and, I do think we need to question our current cultural propensity to sexualize EVERYTHING. I don’t think we should inundate our children with the message that “hot bodies” are a way to sell everything… Nor should we give them the message that exposing their own skin will lead to success, praise, or monetary gain. Yet, we do. Kids learn from Miley Cyrus (see Vanity Fair images below) or Vanessa Hutchins (see images below) that nude or nearly nude pics will get you all sorts of attention. Girls learn that showing their belly button or wearing their pants as low on the hips as possible will get positive reactions. Boys learn that muscular arms and chiseled abs are swoon worthy. Where are the messages about that most important body part – the brain?!?

So, while I will admit that the viewing of exposed skin can be pleasureful, I think we as a culture need to be more judicious about such exposure. We need less of it, and, when it is there, it needs to be EQUAL exposure – one six pack for every cleavage shot, one chiseled chest for every long leg – and, at least one body of color, one fat body, one short body, one disabled body, one old body, one non-cisgender body, and so on for every “ideal” body…

Published in: on February 24, 2009 at 6:51 pm  Comments (33)  

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  1. I think it’s worth pointing out that mainstream media is run by the same people who are out to exploit everyone in the name of power and profit. We should instead opt out of mainstream everything, since the magazines exist solely for advertising (because in order to live in a capitalist country, we need to buy more).
    It seems futile to change such a broken machine when instead, we could be creating a new vision for media. It is difficult, no doubt, but unless we demonstrate that we have agency and we are in charge of our whole person (body, brains, soul), we can never be free.

    • Meep,
      Good point. However, as most don’t “opt out of mainstream everything” I think it is still important to critique mainstream media, especially with my students. I agree we need to create new media yet I realize that we need to also analyze the current media machine for those still under its sway…

  2. I made the connection between the clothing and power while in college. I always notices few women wore pants to the red carpet events. ONCE, I observed a bunch of dates coming from a Greek (Sorority /Fraternity) party and noticed the women looked like ” brightly colored cockatoo’s ” while the men wore plain black and white suits and were fully clothed. Those who have more power are required to wear more clothing.

    wonder why Black is such a daring color for women…

    • Asada,
      Brightly colored cockatoo’s — what a great way to put it!
      Driving home from my campus one night I saw students heading to some sort of angels/devils frat even — the women were in white teddies with little wings — nearly naked. Ugh. We also have a tradition on our campus of “CEO’s and Secretary Hoe’s” parties. Lovely.
      Great point about black as a “daring” color.
      Thanks for reading!

  3. “Those who have more power are required to wear more clothing.”

    A more accurate construction would be ‘those who have less power are required to wear less clothing.’ Men, by virtue of their top spot in the pecking order, aren’t required to do a damn thing they don’t want to. Women, however, have to make suitable adjustments to ensure the power differential is maintained at all times. Believe me, if men wanted to walk around half-naked women would have to find a new means of signifying their difference/inferiority.

  4. @prof I’m glad you’re doing that – I don’t know if I can stomach much mass media! Watching TV commercials are terrible because they make you feel inferior for no reason. Magazines never give you any interesting information anymore… :/

  5. You’re all so entrenched in your self serving viewpoints that adding some sort of counterpoint is going to have only hilarious results, but let’s imagine this situation . . .

    An intellectually false detachment from biological realities is all that makes your viewpoint possible.

    Women show skin for men the world over regardless of media coverage because it’s how we’re ensured survival as a species. Your brain is filled with frightening chemicals that are outside of your control. As it is with men.

    Instead of blaming men, let’s blame those 95 – 98% of everyone who have no interest in transcending their base natures. Are you so out of touch with most women that you’d assume they’d be played instead of players in this grotesque game?

    • Muslim women show skin? The ancient Greek men didn’t walk around naked while their female counterparts were forbidden the same? Indian women don’t wear long, colorful gowns?

    • A woman can wear whatever the heck she pleases. Clothing is not a flag for any invitation, if she’s interested, she will let the partner know even dressed as a nun. The point is how our body is regarded. We are not property. John Stuart Mill had much more logic as a man than this comment.

      Also, you imply that somehow the only reason for sexual urges is due to reproduction, like somehow no female has ever had the need to be with someone because of her libido.

  6. And oh yeah . . . if you’re going to cite a failure to look the viewer in the eye in your quest to personalize, maybe make sure that’s the case in at least one of your reference photos.

    • Sally, you’re being unnecessarily hostile. Nothing about this article is unreasonable and most importantly, as someone else has already pointed out, it does not assign roles of victim and perpetrator to the genders.

  7. Sally,
    Is biological realities another way of claiming biological determinism? Do you completely reject social constructionism?

    As for your claim “women show skin the world over” — this is false. Anthropologists such as Mead show that gender and its display are not constant, thus putting “biological realities” types of claims into question. There are societies in which men show more skin and indeed which have male beauty contests.

    But, alas, it is far easier to claim we cannot control our brains and are awash in chemicals that determine our actions.

    The post does not blame men nor does is suggest women are submissive dupes in all this. As for the male gaze, this is a well known concept that refers to the overall trend to objectify and dehumanize women in media representations — just because a female looks the viewer in the eye does not mean the male gaze is still not in play…

  8. Actually, none of this is new. For a slighty dated (but still relevant) argument in this same vein, which delves into greater detail of this very subject, ‘The Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf. In fact, I have to wonder if the author has read that, since it echoes it so precisely. Or maybe great minds…

  9. Bacchante,
    Thanks for reading and commenting. You are absolutely right that none of it is new. Yes, I have read The Beauty Myth. Many feminists make these types of arguments — Bartky, Bordo, Caputi, etc. I was interested in exploring a recent manifesation of the ‘beauty cult’ wherein smart, powerful women who are successful enough to no longer merely play the object STILL do so. Tina Fey, as an example, is known for her brains and humor — so why did she need to do a photo that is so objectifying? Especially when women who do have the power to choose NOT to do so, I lose a bit of respect for them — but I still watch 30 Rock!

  10. “…and, at least one body of color, one fat body, one short body, one disabled body, one old body, one non-cisgender body, and so on for every “ideal” body…”

    This is for me the crux of it. Naked bodies in and of themselves are not bad; nudity is not bad. But when we are blasted day in and out 1) by only certain types of bodies, telling us what is the “norm” and “ideal”, and 2) the idea that women should exist for the purpose of being attractive to men, that is where my feminist knickers get in a knot!

    Monika

  11. Monika,
    My feminist knickers are knotting right along with yours!!!

  12. Too often I post on the internet to add a counterpoint. Not today. I totally agree with the idea you are expressing here.

    I’ve read a number of feminist postings on the male gaze. The question I’d always been left with was, surely it wouldn’t be ok if we just objectified men to an equal degree? I love that you talked about the over sexualisation of society in general and the need to focus on the worth of our brains.

    In response to one of the comments I do have something to add though. The ability to express oneself through the clothes they wear is not something necessarily sexual. Bright colours can paint you as a friendly outgoing person. Many men would like the freedom to dress more colourfully on formal occasions. The grey-washing of men’s clothes reinforces their emotional oppression.

    But I don’t want to change the subject. The omnipresent images of women as valuable more for their aesthetics, I think is actually one reason for their under representation in engineering and the physical sciences; fields that inherently value functionality over aesthetics. Girls are being taught that their bodies are better for looking good than they are for building things or for carrying the brain that comes up with them in the first place.

  13. Ok I think that women should not expose their bodies as it its highly immoral. Just think about it, if you actually flash your body or pose half naked it clearly shows you have no self respect no self integrity or class or dignity.Your just a cheap , low class, slut. All religions teach us to be decently dressed. I mean just think about the fact that that the whole world is lookin at your body. A body should be private. Its an invasion of privacy, really will u see Mother Mary nposing on the cover of Maxim wearing a bikini? or walk on the streets in a spaghetti strap blouse?

  14. sorry for the spelling mistake nposing. it s actually posing.

  15. Ashleigh, you are welcome to your opinions, and as a feminist, I value and respect your right as a woman to dress as you choose. However, I take issue with calling a woman a “slut” because she wears certain clothing, for whatever reason (including sexual expression).

    I have issues with the way women’s bodies are portrayed in the media – we are hypersexualized, typically for the male gaze. But my issue is with the patriarchy.

    As for the spaghetti strap blouse, I wore one today. Out in public. You know what? It was darn hot out and my clothing was entirely functional. But even if it wasn’t, it would not be your place to judge. You are welcome to wear what you choose, and I will support that choice. But please don’t judge mine (or other women’s!)

    • Hear, Hear!

  16. I’m sure most men would love to be objectified physically, expecially as most of you see the relation between the genders as socially constructed…by all means, gaze away.

    • I have heard this sentiment a lot, but when one looks at what objectification means (at least to me), it is about having one’s power taken away, being named/labeled by someone else, by having one’s worth based upon another’s assessment.

      I do believe that men are socialized to believe that objectification is sexy – something to desire. But the same can be said of (for example) younger boys having sexual relationships with older women. This example, while “extreme” is on the same power continuum, and boys who are sexually abused by women are told that this experience is enjoyable – even while they may be facing many of the same feelings of other victims of sexualized violence.

      RE: objectification, temporary feelings of powerlessness may be on occasion fun for a change if one isn’t used to those feelings; when they are part of one’s lived experience, it can feel violent, helpless, and maddening.

  17. Many people rationalize male magazines as a form of entertainment and a source of information. Although these are true, a crucial social implication is backfiring. Male magazines diminish the role of women in the society. Although women are gaining power in all aspects of life, other aspects especially in print media are still under fire. Women commercialization is very eminent to magazines targeting male consumers. Its purpose is to lure a prospective buyer by putting sexy women in their front cover, thus, these women or sexy models act as a boost to a magazine’s over-all packaging.
    Consequently, women are virtually seen as whores or pleasure-givers to the readers. This kind of art propagates erotic attitude towards women in general. Since media has a vast influence over the society, the effect is very damaging. If this kind of negative publicity to women continues, it would not be surprising that we will go back to the age where female are seen as inferior compared to its male counterpart.

    • KayaCamilla,
      Thanks for your insightful comment! I agree that the hyper-sexualization of women is very damaging. Unfortunately though, I think women are ALREADY seen as inferior…

  18. At my college I took a really excellent class about photographing bodies. Needless to say, the male gaze was a main focus of the class. As a male-bodied/male-identified individual (with am inherently male gaze), it made me take a closer look at the way I depicted women in my photography. I realized that I’d subconsciously absorbed societal expectations of how to represent a female body in a photograph. I wish more men were aware of the concept o the male gaze…it’s something we take for granted as a society, much to our detriment.

    Here’s a link to a photo series I did commenting explicitly on the male gaze in media imagery, and it’s pornographic, objectifying effects (there’s even an appropriation of the Tina Fey Vanity Fair cover mentioned in your post)

    http://bencuevas.wordpress.com/2009/09/26/explicit-content/

  19. I loved this article!

    I blame women for choosing the easiest ways to make a buck and not thinking how it affects their gender overall.

    If women refused to pose half naked looking like a deer caught in someone’s headlights or to wear clothes that are clearly fashioned for sexual purposes, unless that was actually their goal at the time, maybe attitudes would change. Or maybe those women would simply be out of work.

    Thanks for a great read. It’s heartening for me to see that some people think about things that I do as I can’t find one woman in my real life travels who does.

    • Thanks, Alice.
      Sadly, many women *must* for the sake of money/career pose half naked and do all other manner of things to keep the male gaze juiced!
      Here’s hoping you find some women in your “real life travels” to share your thoughts/ideas with!

    • Alice, I totally get where you are coming from but I don’t blame women for their contribution to sexism and internalized sexism. I prefer to blame the patriarchy for that. That said, I must confess that there are a few women that I am comfortable blaming – I am thinking specifically of Phyllis Schlafly.

      And, as you alluded to, women (like all people) have to do what they can to survive/live. We live in a capitalist society and that means unfortunately we need money to live. So I guess I blame capitalism too!

  20. I get what you’re trying to say, but I think all human bodies should be celebrated and not concealed. I feel that society doesn’t allow men to show as much skin and that’s the real problem.

  21. Can women & men get equal skin coverage?

    If women have as much consumption of male skin, perhaps. There are nothing stopping Vogue from having male centerfolds if women actually desiring those pictures, but instead Vogue shows more women skins.

    Maybe there are just simply a lot less demand for male skins?

    Maybe the demand for male is in success, prowess, etc, instead?

    The only form of male skins showing, as you said, are 6-packs of bodybuilders and athletes (I would add actors and the very few male models). Other men simply don’t get coverages unless they are successful in other ways. We not only not see poor males unrepresented in media – we don’t see any male represented unless they are successful with some other means at all.

    Since this is a capitalistic society – the explanation is probably just that – females don’t care much for male skins, i.e. low demands.

    If the demand is high – I promise you that there are many aspiring male models willing to expose their skins for exchange of some bucks too. Derek Zoolander says so.

    Male gaze is just that – the gaze of a purchaser. He/she who has the gold makes the rules – the golden rule rings true with or without sex involved. If females want to objectify men, just vote with their wallets.

    Patriarchy… is that really still a problem today? Most kids growing up in divorced families often don’t even have a father figure in their lives anymore, boys are repressed in schools in favor of girls’ way of learning, women are graduating from college in greater numbers than men and are holding higher paying jobs, the Great Recession affect more men than women as industries that are men dominated shed much more percentage of the jobs… I can go on with more examples, but feminists don’t see these as problems. They still continue to talk about objectification of females, as if that comes from the males.

    Look – nobody held a gun to Jennifer Aniston’s head and tell her to shed her clothing for the GQ cover. She gets paid handsomely for it. And it’s bunch of poor boys/men buying a picture of her to satisfy their urges because they can never have her – she’s laughing all the way to the bank at the men’s expenses.

    The problem for women is that Jennifer Aniston did it also at the expenses of other women. i.e. she’s competing much more successfully for the male’s attentions, and now all women have to work that much harder just to measure up.

    That’s the crux of female objectification – female sexual competition. It’s an arms race, whether real or perceived. Biology dictates that male seeks fertile mates, and no crying about male gaze or patriarchy will change that – evolution works in millions of years, not generations. Poor males will spend money on porns as readily as rich males – that’s not authority/power/domination – that’s just consumerism.

    But sexual competition is brutal – it sucks for the average females, just like it sucks for the average males. As matter of fact, it sucks worse for males – but feminists don’t care to hear any of that!

    Females gets to pass on their genes much more readily than males – something like 80% of females gets to pass on their genes while less than 50% of males get to do so (feel free to search internet for this – I don’t have the actual figures/refs at hand). Why is that? Male competitions.

    Males compete in resource gatherings – and a lot of time that’s resolved with fightings, raids, and even wars. Casualties are high because the stakes are high. And the winners of the stakes gets to have lots of ladies, because ladies are drawn to powerful resource providers like moth drawn to flames.

    Biology designed males as to be expendable – only a few males are needed to propagate a population, but as many females as possible are needed. So we evolved into species encouraging males to seek risks that can result in death, but highly rewarding if successful.

    That’s where polygyny comes from – fewer men, and powerful men. They are extremely desirable for females.

    And as long as females continues to desire such men – there will always be powerful men around. Female desirability ensures males have more incentives to achieve!

    But remember – there are, VERY, VERY FEW powerful men around. Most men are just average. So when feminists complain that there are no female POTUS – remember there are only 44 males out of billions getting to be one! Even when it was polygyny, only the RICH MALES gets to afford it – most males have to go with only one or without.

    The feminist movement is a pandora box – basically that females are now liberated and subjecting themselves needing to resource gatherings and higher sexual competitions.

    It is not to say that there are no female sexual competitions during historical polygyny societies; there are always desire for youth and beauty of course. But in those societies, where women are “powerless”, are often accompanied by means of getting women married and paired up. Obviously it sucks for those women who feels like they didn’t get the one that they want, but such “arranged” pairings reduces competitions between females.

    Because with freedom comes responsibility – when you want the freedom to choose – you’ll have to work for it yourself.

    And with competitions there will be winners and losers. There are, again, fewer desirable males, and females are competing for their attentions (obviously it draws attentions from every male – but as we all know, most females don’t show favors to every male out there). So – this is where there are a whole class of psychology problems resulting from the competitions and pressures – anorexia, you name it. It’s against those who don’t measure up. The ones who have it are again laughing all the way to the bank.

    And feminists’ insistence against polygyny in the name of patriarchy simply means more female losers in the sexual competition, as females can’t just agree to share the powerful males (this, is, by the way, lucky break for average males).

    In the name of equality – feminism creates these problems onto themselves (the female feminists).

    Solutions?

    1 – don’t just look at the desirable males – there are plenty of good males around, even if they don’t seem all that desirable. Unfortunately – this requires mature females, and works against evolution. Many only do so when their biological clock starts ticking, and many call the result “settling”. This will be hard to change.

    2 – don’t play the evolution game – individual can choose to opt out at any time. But probably most won’t.

    3 – play the game hard by make oneself more desirable. This is where the arm race come from, as showing skin is a fast way to make oneself desirable.

    4 – be a purchaser. Females now have the ability to be a buyer these days. Believe it or not, there are himbos out there for purchase! The only problem here is that this also works against the revolution as females are evolved to look for more successful males. And the more successful one is as a female, by definition one’ll be reducing her available mating pool.

    5 – entertain polygyny. This won’t remove all competition as even the most desirable male can’t take on all comers, but it will allow an outlet that’s unavailable today. But obviously feminists are against this.

    Showing less skin? Only if all females coordinate together to stop competing can it be achieved. I think polygyny will be achieved first.

    As for the what you called the most important organ – the brains? As much as that’s the reason behind our species’ success, it’s not how we propagate. We propagate by fertile females, whether smart or not. As success takes time to gather, any females trading their time for success against their time for fertility is indeed playing a risky evolution game.

    Good luck fighting against evolution!

  22. This text is priceless. Where can I find out more?

  23. Can’t praise your opinion enough.Unfortunately, it does seem a bit idealistic – not that we should stop fighting to move in that direction.


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