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The Politics of Desirability
And Why There’s No Way to Win
TW: mentions sexual violence/harassment
I’ve been in roughly the same body I am in now since I was about twelve years old. This is a fact that I’ve mentioned before in an article I wrote a few months ago, but one I didn’t discuss at length, mainly because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. Being an early bloomer is something I had never really thought about until lately. And in the brief moments that I have thought about it in the past, I didn’t quite have the words to convey the complexity of what it means to develop quickly as a young girl in a patriarchal society. The pride, shame, and discomfort that is assumed. The acute awareness of your newfound surveillance. The shift in others’ perceptions of you and how it affects your own self-perception. Here’s my stab at conveying it.
Recently, a tweet from New York Post, a conservative tabloid, has been appearing repeatedly on my timeline. The tweet contains photos of Euphoria actress Sydney Sweeney in a bikini top along with a quote from her that reads “I had boobs before other girls and I felt ostracized.” It’s clear that the formatting and photos included in this tweet were intended to evoke the exact reaction that they did, which is a flooding of women and men saying that they don’t see what the problem with her situation is. Many women replied by scoffing at the issue, complaining that they felt ostracized for the exact opposite: developing later than others. And many men - somewhat predictably - sarcastically called out that her predicament was a nonissue. What girl wouldn’t want to have big boobs as quickly as possible?
Within a patriarchal society, male approval is assumed to be one of the most coveted prizes one can earn. Through familial, cultural, and media influences, women are subliminally and directly taught that a heterosexual relationship will solve their ailments. They internalize this belief, often deeply. Even if it’s not directly on their minds, it’s often unspokenly assumed that having the affection of a male romantic partner will assuage their worries due to stringent social conditioning. But this isn’t just the case for women.
If you observe the way that men interact with each other in private and public spaces, it’s quite clear that they value each other’s approval even more than women’s. A prime example of this is modern-day gym culture. Building extreme muscular physique and displaying it through gym pics on Snapchat appears to be more of a peacocking ritual for men to gain the attention of other men, as most straight women (at least the ones I know) cringe at the act. When you ask a straight man who his heroes are, he will most often list the names of other men - his father, other male relatives, or the names of acclaimed businessmen, male scientists, athletes, and public figures. A straight man designating a straight woman as his role model - even his own mother - would be an act so novel in this culture that it would likely be hard for his interlocutors not to draw attention to it (“Aww that’s so sweet!”). Then, of course, one mustn’t forget about the tried and true high school mantra of “bros before hoes,” painting out clear as day the inordinate respect boys have for their male friends compared to their girl counterparts.
Even when men are married with children, it seems as though there’s often a slice of themselves saved for their male friends. Their bond with them is close, a different closeness than they have with their girlfriends and wives. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with holding same-sex friendships in high regard - everyone should be able to have friendships they value greatly. It’s just that women are disproportionately expected to sell their souls for the prospect of a heterosexual relationship. In many cases, this may even involve abandoning the opportunity to form closer ties with the women in their lives without them even consciously realizing it. Male validation is a lethal drug.
When living in a culture like this, it, unfortunately, makes sense why many men and women would struggle to understand the hardships that come with being overly sexualized. If you need male attention to somehow “win” at being a woman, then why would you complain about possessing it? This myth is not only what fuels a society in which young girls and women are disproportionately victims of overt sexual violence, but one in which girls learn to grow up quickly and possess a paralyzing awareness of how others perceive them.
Around age eight, I got my first bra. I can recall planning my outfit meticulously on the first day I planned to wear it to school. I selected my shirt carefully, ensuring that it was opaque and dark enough for no one to be able to see it. I analyzed my shirt’s transparency in the bright, sterile light of the bathroom, making sure that nothing about my appearance would draw unwanted attention. Nonetheless, as I walked through my elementary school hallways, I remember feeling an uncomfortable sense that all eyes were on me. On the playground that day, my feelings were confirmed when two girls that regularly teased me tried to lift up my shirt in front of everyone. A few years later in fifth grade, they would “pants” me in front of the schoolyard.
In high school, similar attention persisted. I remember being with a girl friend in a public space and being gawked at on multiple occasions by grown men. In some cases, the men were over twice our age. While studying at a Starbucks as a sophomore, a friend and I were approached by a group of guys. They asked what school we attended, likely assuming that we attended a college. Upon telling them we were high school students, they quickly fled the table.
During high school especially, I was aware that it was inappropriate for a minor to be receiving this kind of attention from adults, mainly because it made me feel gross. When I turned eighteen, it felt peculiar to me that all of a sudden the attention I would receive from grown men was now acceptable. Yesterday, when I was seventeen, it was a disgrace, but now anything goes? I was only a senior in high school, but saw a long road ahead of being ogled by unwanted eyeballs everywhere I went. Even if it wasn’t the case, even in the times when it was all in my head, it suddenly felt like I was perpetually being watched. Like CCTV cameras were pointing at me from a million different angles.
What was most confusing about this experience was how undesirable it was to me. In popular music and movies and even in conversations with friends, the idea of being seen as attractive was a desirable concept. Particularly in the wake of “sex positivity” in online 2010s discourse, being seen as promiscuous was even viewed as a power move, a coveted badge of empowerment. If that was the case, why did it feel so awful for me to be viewed this way? Why did it feel like this power wasn’t my own?
There’s a great monologue in season two of Fleabag about women’s pain. During a conversation with the protagonist, and in reference to cisgender women more specifically, Kristin Scott Thomas’ character Belinda says that “women are born with pain built in.” She continues on, saying:
“It’s our physical destiny: period pains, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives, men don’t. They have to seek it out, they invent all these gods and demons and things just so they can feel guilty about things, which is something we do very well on our own. And then they create wars so they can feel things and touch each other and when there aren’t any wars they can play rugby. We have it all going on in here inside.”
Beyond the mere physical, there’s a level of pain that women learn to feel through experience. They’re born into it when they’re born into a patriarchy. To even just exist in this society as a woman - to feel uncomfortable in public space and learn the hoops to jump through to avoid feeling any more pain than we can - is traumatic. To deny a woman for expressing this fact - for expressing the ways objectification has harmed her - is to say that this system that was meant to make her feel powerless isn’t making her feel powerless. Which simply isn’t true.
There are faulty ways our world makes us feel like we can seize power, like purchasing power, for example. Patriarchy, closely intertwined with capitalism, is designed to make women feel like they can attain this perfect balance between desirability and modesty if they simply acquire the right products to make them appear the right way. If you don’t feel desirable enough, maybe try applying some make-up or buying a push-up bra. If you don’t like the attention you’re receiving, maybe try buying and wearing some more conservative clothing. “Confidence” and #empowerment are bottled and sold in a myriad of formats - be it Victoria’s Secret lingerie or an Aritzia blazer. Everything about how a woman is supposed to feel is expected to be externalized in the format the culture deems fit. Commodities ripe for our consumption.
This whole process of editing and fine-tuning can make you feel more like car parts than an actual person. And above all, it’s like applying and re-applying a band-aid to an axe wound. We’re merely attempting to survive a system by continually treating a symptom of it. Patriarchy is not some kind of competition that a woman can win if she strikes the right balance of desirability and modesty. It’s a race without a finish line.
There is a multitude of grievances one can experience living in a society that objectifies people. Just because one woman’s pain doesn’t mirror yours doesn’t mean that either is invalid. The idea that there are a finite amount of impacts an oppressive system can impart holds us back from both seeking solidarity and acknowledging the different ways we must heal to feel closer to being whole - most of which don’t involve altering our exterior. Starting there - along with recognizing that a world that simultaneously rewards and condemns women for appearing “sexual” is harming our girls - is the only way we can begin to untangle the messes that are contemporary desirability and contemporary objectification.
For more from me on a related topic, I suggest checking out “The Gender Modesty Gap,” which discusses this tricky balance between desirability and modesty with an emphasis on media influence and policing.
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