Founded in 1974, the Women’s Center was established to:
Dismantle, from a feminist perspective, all forms of oppression, including but not limited to those based on ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Advocate for an equitable environment free from violence and harassment based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Create an anti-racist, non-sexist, queer-affirmative space where all people can feel valued and safe.
Facilitate and strengthen connections among people across lines of difference through programming and educational campaigns.
Integrate an appreciation of Women's Gender and Multicultural Studies across the disciplines.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stay Away from My Body, Tyra Banks!

Earlier this week I caught a episode of the Tyra Show that honestly, just horrified me. The episode, called Does Size Matter: Women's Edition, confronted this "important" question in regards to women's butts and boobs under the guise of building positive body image. In the first half of the show Tyra had five women line up in a series of stalls that were blocked off both on top and on bottom so that the only part of these women that could be seen were their butts.

Tyra then had a panel of five men, sitting just off to the side, comment on the women's butts one at a time.

Some of the comments made were positive - for instance woman number one was told that she had a nice butt because she was "standing there like an action hero" and it was "even all out."

Some of them were mean - like when woman number four was told that she needs to "do a couple of squats because [...] [her booty] has some spread to it" but he didn't like the way it was "going up into her back."

Some were creepy - like when woman number two was complemented on the space between her upper thighs legs which he called a "gap" and was told to "open that up" when she reflexively pressed her legs together more.

Finally, some of them were just plain weird - like when number five was told that her booty was a "Mufasa ass" (which I gather is a good thing?) The man who coined the term claimed to have used it because she had a "very healthy booty, that is a booty that says I am booty hear me roar." He later added that he knows several guys who would like to "roar" with her booty.

Now I know Tyra isn't considered a paragon of feminist thought, good taste, or even sanity; which is why I debated for a long while as to whether or not I should even write about this, but I still think something has to be said. Tyra has been putting herself out there for awhile now as an advocate for body acceptance and self esteem in women and girls. She even tried to frame this exercise as something that would be positive to these women's body image - claiming that it would help women to understand once and for all what men want - is it boobs, booties, or the "skinny minnie bodies" that the media tries to sell us. Tyra's heart may have been in the right place, but her message is all wrong. Here's why...

Breaking Women Down to Bootys and Boobs (Objectification)

The way in which these women were literally broken down into body parts (butts to be specific) by the enclosure that Tyra set up honestly left me aghast for a good few hours. I just kept asking my boyfriend how Tyra, a woman who claims to be against objectification, could so openly and obviously objectify a group of women on her own show. How did she not realize what she was doing?

I understand this was an exercise meant to focus on the women's butts; but by blocking out every other parts of these women Tyra is making a strong symbolic statement, one that I am not comfortable with. People are more than just a hodgepodge of body parts and exercises like this, that focus critique only on a fragment of a whole person, do damage to that whole person.

Objectification is wrong when it happens in real life (and it does all of the time) but there is something even more wrong, in my mind, with it happening on purpose as part of an exercise on national television. By blocking these women off in the way that she did Tyra sent the message that it is okay to judge women based on their butts (or breasts, or faces, etc...) alone. That's a message I can't get behind.

Encouraging the Male Gaze & Heteronormative Thinking

Tyra's next HUGE mistake was the way that this panel was set up. By putting together a panel of guys to discuss these women's body parts she is subscribing to the ideal that women exist, primarily, to satisfy the male gaze. I mean, think about it: its one thing to feed into the obsession with how other perceive us by putting together a panel of people to discuss how our body parts appear. Its another thing entirely to build a panel solely of men. That sends a message, a very specific message. That says: women, you are here to please men. Your body is only acceptable if these men (representing all men) find it appealing.

Whats worst about this portion of the exercise is that its not so unbelievable - we see it in the real world all of the time. Most women have stories about times when they were out in public, maybe shopping, maybe walking down the street, maybe sitting and eating a meal... and a man who happened to be nearby felt the need to comment on an aspect of their appearance. We even have a word for it: catcalling. [See this post on Jezebel for examples if you need evidence!] The male gaze exists in the real world - and it is demoralizing.

In the real world the male gaze has the power to reduce a powerful woman to nothing more than a body to be used as men vocally cast their opinions - either I'd bang that or not good enough. It can be paralyzing, as a young woman, to try and stand above this and be given the respect you deserve, all the while knowing you're being judged (silently and not so silently) for the way you look first, and the content of your message second (if at all.)

Furthermore, by only involving men in this discussion Tyra ignored all of the lesbian and bisexual women who also find women's bodies attractive. If we're interested in finding out what female bodies are considered the most attractive (putting aside the fact that this goal is flawed for a moment) shouldn't we be interested in getting the opinions of all the different types of people who are attracted to women?

Racial Profiling

At one point, immediately after the "booty girls" (as Tyra called them) were revealed, one of the panelists uttered this troubling line: "I didn't even realize [women number three] was a white girl... I was so busy looking at the booty."

This comment contributes to the way of thinking we seem to have in America, one that racializes body parts (specifically, black women are expected to have big booties, while white women are more typically associated with breasts) in a disturbing way. The truth is women come in an assortment of colors and sizes, and no woman should feel pressured to look a certain way based simply on her ethnic background.

Perhaps the only good thing this segment did was to highlight the effects that these race-based assumptions have as we saw one black women speak about her insecurities over having a "flat" booty - insecurities that lead her to buy and wear a "prosthetic booty" only after ruling butt-plumping injections out as too expensive. This is wrong, this woman should be allowed to feel comfortable with her body as it is.

Critiquing Bodies at All

I think what horrified me most was the way in which the people who I was watching this with so quickly jumped into critiquing the butts on screen, right along with the men. There were places where my friends where horrified, don't get me wrong , like when one of the panelists, during the boob portion of the show, likened women with small breasts to men; but there were also places in the show where I listened to my (female) friends join in on the conversation - pointing out flaws that they perceived in these women's bodies.

This is wrong.

Its one thing to find someone attractive, obviously I am not saying we should start pretending that we are not attracted to certain bodies. What I am saying, though, is that we should stop tearing other peoples bodies apart, just because we don't personally find them attractive. Just as there are all different types of bodies in this world there are also all different types of attractions - some people get turned on by bigger butts, or smaller boobs, or wider hips, or flatter tummies, or rounder tummies, or broad shoulders... whatever. Its cheesy but its true: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and every body is beautiful to some beholder. Its fine to focus on the bodies you find beautiful, but why not just leave the ones you don't find beautiful alone instead of tearing them down?

There's something else about this that bothers me too... with all that our bodies can do, why is the focus always on how they look? Our bodies are for running, and dancing, and creating, and hugging, and writing, and so much more... but how often do we celebrate that? Why does the conversation always seem to come back down to the way our bodies look?

It doesn't have to be this way; lets focus on how our bodies, and all that they do, help to create the whole of who we are... we'll leave Tyra to discuss the bits and pieces.

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