This post talks about the way International Women’s Day usually happens in Brazil and might not reflect the reality of other countries.
On the last hours of December 31st, 2016, the last day of the year, in the city of Campinas, state of São Paulo, Brazil, a man broke into Isamara Filier’s, his ex-wife, New Year’s Eve party and murdered her with a 9mm pistol. He also murdered João Victor Filier, his 8 year old son, and ten more of Isamara’s relatives. The man commited this brutal mass murder in the name of his right of fatherhood. He couldn’t accept that the woman and her son did not belong to him, and when Isamara decided to divorce him, he started planning his revenge. On New Year’s Eve he killed twelve people and then commited suicide. He left behind a manifesto, where he called Isamara and her female relatives, who helped her during the legal process of divorce, “bitches” and “sluts”, and parroted conservative catchprases typical of Internet comment sections.
The Campinas Massacre is one of the first instances where the Brazilian press used the term “femicide“, though the word is already part of Brazilian legislation since 2015, as an aggravant to the crime of homicide. On Facebook, male commenters defended the killer, accused Isamara of being a “scam artist” and of wrongfully depriving the murderer of having any contact with his offspring. Excerpts of the killer’s manifesto were widely shared on WhatsApp, the most popular instant messaging app in Brazil, in male-only group chats, the same ones where men share information about beer sales and pictures of naked women. “Of course, murder is wrong”, said the men, “but…”
There is always a “but”.
“But she provoked him”, said the men. “But she also did wrong”. “But she might be lying”.
“We can’t know anything for certain”, said the men, “you have to listen to both sides”.
Predictable, common reactions to an unfortunately common crime. While the Campinas Massacre shocked the country for its brutality and for the number of victims, a man murdering a woman that he considers to be his property, often including their offspring as well, is an everyday occurrence.
According to data from the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada – IPEA (Institute for Research in Applied Economics), it is estimated that between the years of 2001 and 2011 there were over 50.000 femicides – cases where a woman is killed specifically because of her sex – in Brazil. The research also shows the following data:
Intimate partners are the main woman killers. Aproximately 40% of all homicides of women around the world are commited by an intimate partner. In contrast, this proportion is close to 6% among murdered men. That means that the proportion of women murdered by a male partner is 6.6 times larger than the proportion of men murdered by a female partner.
Still during this year, only a few days ago, we had a case of triple femicide in the state of Santa Catarina, where a 24 year old man stabbed to death his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child, Rafaela Horbach, a teenager only 15 years old. He also killed Julyane and Fabiane Horbach, Rafaela’s sisters. Rafaela was fighting the killer in court, since he refused to pay child support. The man claimed that the victim did not let him see the child.
On Facebook, men argue among themselves if it is OK or not for a 24 year old grown ass man to impregnate a girl ten years younger than he is. A man with a shirtless selfie as his profile picture calls female commenters “filthy feminists” and accuses them of “whining”.
Around the end of last month, an ex-soccer player, arrested in 2010 for killing and hiding the body of his lover and mother of his child, Eliza Samudio, was released after being jailed for six years. The man did not want to pay child support, and claimed that the child wasn’t his – his paternity was later confirmed through a DNA test. After his release, the former soccer player was received by a horde of fans, who celebrated and snapped selfies with the killer, and he received several job offers from soccer teams. Sônia Moura, Eliza Samudio’s mother, fears for her life and for the life of her child.
But why am I listing all these crimes?
Because today is the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, and we need to contextualize the current scenario. Today is a day where schools and businesses gift female students and employees with roses or chocolate, and put up pink and purple decorations. Maybe today some men came to you and said “congratulations”. Maybe some of them made that tired old joke and said “today is your day, but the other 364 are for men”. Maybe someone mentioned the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, or maybe they said something about suffragettes and women’s right to vote. A lot will be said about women’s past achievements. But, outside the feminist bubble, of the Facebook groups and feminist collectives, today will be a day like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s day. A day where you get a little treat or trinket, and a pat in the back.
And this is why I wanted to bring up the examples cited above, all from this year that barely started, to show some context for why feminists say we live in a patriarchy, a system where the father rules and women are his property. Denied his right to the throne, the father, vengeful, destroys the woman who he feels denied him what is his by birthright, by divine right – afterall god is also a big sky daddy – and by right of force. He destroys the woman and her offspring, because he feels like they are his property, to be treated in any way he sees fit. This is the mindset behind these murders, and this is the mindset of the common men who, while not murderous themselves, defend and justify these acts.
And these are the same men who give us roses and congratulations. They are our brothers, our fathers, our cousins, our grandsons, our sons, our friends, our boyfriends, our coworkers. Check the profile of any man who posts something atrociously misogynistic on Facebook, justifies the unjustifiable, blames the victim, calls women “bitches” and “sluts”, and you will find dozens of women in his social circle.
Besides that, between flowers and chocolate, the day frequently has its origin forgotten. Originally created as the International Working Women’s Day, the date stems from labor strikes in the beginning of the 20th century, specifically from the textile industry, where female workers protested against dire working conditions. In explicitly socialist demonstrations, the workers demanded shorter workdays and to be paid the same as their male counterparts. A hundred years later, the day, originally proposed to promote discussion and organize political action about the specific necessities of women, became just yet another festive date, with companies of all sorts offering incentives for the purchase of superfluous goods and offering discounts on items related to the performance of femininity, like cosmetics and waxing. The language used in the advertising and “homages” praise attributs like beauty, gentleness and sensitivity, all in a very condescending tone.
On this year, the same organization that promoted the D.C. Women’s March that happened in January 2017 as a protest against anti-woman policies promoted by obscene orange creature president Donald Trump is now calling for a worldwide women’s strike where, during the whole day of March 8th, women would refuse to perform any paid or unpaid labor, based in event like Iceland’s “Women’s Day Off” that happened in 1975, or the more recent women’s strike in Poland against a full ban on abortion.
The precedent for this kind of action definitely exists, and I’m glad to see a call for political action on International Women’s Day, which makes total sense considering the history of the date. My concern is that the event, at least here in Brazil, will not reach the critical mass needed for it to be effective. With our current unemployment rate being particulary high, many women can’t have the luxury of taking a day off from work – myself included. I do consider the initiative laudable anyway, and I’m happy to see it happening.
Regardless of participation in some sort of organized action, I belive it’s essential that we take back International Women’s Day as a political event and not as a commercial date. Afterall, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Brazilian legislation does not allow women to have abortions, denying us the right to control our own bodies and treating like criminals women who have miscarriages. Brazilian women are poorly represented in congress, with less than 15% of the chairs being occupied by women. And this congress is now voting to reduce the penalty for statutory rape. Domestic and sexual violence are part of the reality of Brazilian women. And this situation becomes even more dire when we consider the intersections between misogyny and discrimination based on race and class. According to the research cited before, 61% of the victims of femicide are black women, and this crime happens more frequently in poor areas.
Roses and praise will not do any good in this situation. Specially when they come from corporations that are using Women’s Day as an excuse to sell more pink bullshit, or from men who three seconds later will go on Facebook and call some other woman a bitch. The 8th of March is, historically, a day of struggle. And yes, we should remember women’s political and social achievements in the 20th century. But we must, above all, stay alert to the threats of the present. Like a famous quote attributed to Simone de Beauvoir says ,“never forget that a political, economical or religious crisis is enough to cast doubt on women’s rights. These rights will never be vested. You have to stay vigilant your whole life.”
Today is the 8th of March, International Women’s Day. A hundred years later, we still have a lot of fighting to do. And it is extremely unlikely that any of us will live long enough to see the day where misogyny will be a brutality of the past, and male violence will not shape our lives anymore. And, yes, it is demotivating to live through loss after loss as the men around us gleefuly show the contempt they have for us. But we must not let ourselves fall into apathy. We must not give up. The price would be too high.
Warning: this post contain pictures of naked women in an art history context. Proceed with caution if you are in a nipple-free zone.
There I was, minding my own business on a Friday afternoon, when a Facebook messenger notification pops up on my phone. The person messaging me was a guy who was not in my friends list and didn’t have any friends in common with me. He said that he had read one of my blog posts, the infamous “Why do you want to look like a man?” text, and asked for permission to “publish” it.
My dyke sense started tingling right away. First of all, the text is already public. What did this individual mean by “publishing”? And also, why the hell would a man be interested in a blog post where I make it clear how much I don’t care about men and their opinions? I thought it was suspicious and decided to check out the man’s Facebook profile.
In the profile picture, it was obvious that he was a middle-aged man in his late 50’s with a subtle beer gut protruding under his leather jacket. He wore a pair of sunglasses and had a well-trimmed white beard while leaning over a muscle car, clearly trying to look tough. The picture was in black-and-white and looked like it was taken with a high quality camera. I copied and pasted the link to my blog post in my reply to him and told the dude he could share it on his social media if he wanted. I expected it to be the end of that interaction.
The dude thanked me and immediately followed up by asking: “Where do you live?”
My dyke sense was tingling again.
I was already kinda freaked out and got a bit hostile, so I told him it was none of his business, though I was very polite about it. The man apologized and explained that he was asking because he wanted to know if I’d like to participate in his art project. He said that he was a photographer and sent me an Instagram link.
I took a deep breath, rolled my eyes and clicked. What I found there was exactly what I expected.
The Instagram album contained dozens of pictures of young women, naked and clean shaven, photographed in feminine poses, with arched spines and parted lips. Some of them, in shy poses, covered their breasts and genitalia with their hands, white sheets, or a seethrough cloth. Others had their nipples edited out, replaced with small black rectangles. Most of them were lying on a bed. All of them were shot in black-and-white, under a soft, diffuse light that emphasized their curves and silhouettes.
“I’m doing this social project”, the Dude explained. “I want to help women feel comfortable with their bodies. I am a feminist.” Attached to each picture there was a long caption written by the model, talking about the difficulty they had with accepting their bodies, their struggle to exist as women in a world that despises them and their process of self-acceptance. They told stories of discrimination and childhood trauma. Many of them were survivors of rape and sexual abuse.
In one of the comments under a picture of a woman crawling over a messy bed, her naked ass taking the focal point of the picture, the Dude explained that any woman can participate in the project, but she would have to go to his studio to be photographed.
Slightly disgusted, but not even a little bit surprised, I made it clear to the man that I had absolutely no desire to have my name or my words associated with his project and, very politely, I also made it clear that I was skeptical about the value a project where a man photographs naked women less than half his age as a feminist action.
The Dude thanked me for my response and ended the conversation.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
Three minutes later the Dude was possessed by an overwhelming urge to mansplain his nude collection to me, and sent me the following message:
And no, I didn’t translate it poorly. He really sounded that nonsensical.
Of course, it got him a swift trip to my block list.
However, I thought this incident was worth writing about, especially because this situation is very common. So let’s take apart this message, this “art project” and this liberal-brofeminist-liberator-of-women’s-bodies posturing.
Because this is a load of bullshit.
Whether you like it or not, Creepy Dude from Facebook, your work is simply another chapter in a long history of portraits of female nudity made by men. And yes, I’m calling them female nudes. While women are, obviously, human beings, every single one of your pictures shows a female human being. This is not a mere coincidence. Just like it’s not a coincidence that most of those models are very young, some barely out of their teens and almost all of them under 30.
It’s also worth mentioning that most of the women photographed are thin, white, and conventionally attractive. This does not surprise me. By portraying these skinny young white women in feminine, vulnerable poses you are fitting yourself into the millenia-old tradition of using nude images of women to represent the beauty standards of the time, a tradition that dates back to the pre-historic Venus figurines.
The portrait of the human figure has a long and diverse history, including paleolithic idols, classic greek statues, Michelangelo’s nude Adam reaching out to touch his creator, baroque nudes with their defining chiaroscuro lighting schemes, impressionist nudes, expressionist nudes, cubist nudes, surrealist nudes, modernist nudes and contemporary nudes.
While male nudity was historically portrayed as a symbol of strength and virility, seen in images of gods and warriors, showing off martial prowess and power, or even in nude martyrs, representing an ideal of moral righteousness, female nudes were portrayed in a completely different way through history.
The classic image of the female nude in western art is that of the Venus, a name derived from the Roman name of the goddess Aphrodite, a deity associated with love and beauty. In ancient Greek sculpture, up to approximately the 6th century b.C., male images were portrayed nude, while female images were always dressed up. For the ancient Greeks, male nudity was a way to exhibit strength and athleticism, attributes that they believed women did not possess. In the 4th century b.C., the sculptor Praxiteles created what scholars defined as one of the first female nudes, representing the goddess Aphrodite and starting a trend in western art that would last for millenia.
The Venus statues were frequently portrayed covering their breasts and genitals, as if they had been caught by surprise. Some, like the Venus de’ Medici, on the far left side of the image above, are represented next to sea creatures, alluding to the myth of the birth of the goddess, born from the waves caused when the severed penis of the god Uranus was cast to the sea.
The image of the Venus stayed popular during the Roman Empire, when we have the first records of the image of the Reclining Venus, portrayed in a lying position that to this day greatly influences fashion editorials. As opposed to the male nudes, represented in dynamic, aggressive postures, the Venus is portrayed in a passive or even defensive manner, as it is in the instances where the subject covers herself to preserve her modesty. The Venus is essentially a portrayal of femininity, a female image represented through a male gaze, a picture of ethereal, serene beauty, representing the ideal of femininity of the time.
The portrayal of female nudity went through somewhat of a hiatus during the medieval period, showing up sporadically in biblical illustrations where it was relevant. For example, female nudes are seen in images of Eve in the Garden of Eden. During the Renaissance, with renewed interest in classical images, the portrayal of the Venus came back with full force. The female nude, from this point on, was one of the most frequent themes in western art.
In the beginning of the 16th century there was a break in tradition in the representation of the female nude. While classical references were still there, images of nude women with no connection to mythology or sacred texts started to show up. Women who were not goddesses or allegorical images; such as Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus”, which is considered one of the first works of this new trend.
The left hand placed over the vulva gives the image a slight suggestion of eroticism, and the curves of the woman harmonize with the curves in the background hills. Like a sight painting, the image of the female nude is represented as an object to be contemplated and appreciated, made by men and for men’s consumption. Traditional European oil painting makes this voyeuristic intention very clear in it’s hundreds of instances where the woman represented in the picture looks like she is aware of being observed. Be it in a shy or provocative manner, the female nude often has her gaze directed outside the picture. She is not really inserted in that scene, she’s not present in her own context or in her own story. In other words, she is not in the middle of an activity, she is completely passive – at times even asleep -, an object made to be observed and consumed.
Art critic and scholar John Berger defines this dynamic very well in his BBC series “Ways of Seeing”:
“…But in them all there remains the implication that the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator. Often – as with the favourite subject of Susannah and the Elders – this is the actual theme of the picture. We join the Elders to spy on Susannah taking her bath. She looks back at us looking at her. In another version of the subjeet by Tintoretto, Susannah is looking at herself in a mirror. Thus she joins the spectators of herself. The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakednsss you had depicted for your own pleasure. The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.”
With this information in mind, I now ask Facebook Photographer Dude, does your project really work as a way to connect women to their bodies? Is your photography really transgressive? Or are you simply another man producing images of women like you’re photographing sights, creating pictures of the current beauty standard for the consumption of a male spectator, just another one in a legacy of millenia?
Still in “Ways of Seeing”, by the end of the series, Berger compares the social funcion of European oil painting to contemporary advertising, tracing parallels between the two of them and demonstrating the manner in which advertising alludes to compositions, poses, and visual elements from European painting. We can also trace parallels between the aesthetics of advertising and the visual elements typically present in female nude photography made by men nowadays. They both borrow heavily from the aesthetics of fashion editorials.
Fashion is yet another industry where, while the target demographic is mostly women, it is controlled almost fully by men. The biggest names in the field are men, and it’s mostly men who control the way the way in which models will be portrayed. Like in traditional European oil painting, fashion is another instance where men create images of women in the way that pleases them the most. Analyzing some examples of nude fashion models in photography, we can see both how they are influenced by traditional European art and how they subsequently influenced pretentions of “revolutionary” photographers on social media. The photo below, showing the British model Cara Delevigne, is a modern re-creation of the Reclining Venus, in a position that’s almost identical to Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus”.
Or, here, in this 1999 picture of Brazilian model Gisele Bündchen, who was only 19 at the time this photograph was taken. I saw this specific pose being repeated in several of the pictures on the Dude’s Instagram. The model, following the tradition of the female nude, looks over her shoulder and gazes at the spectator, aware of being seen.
Another aspect worth mentioning is the way in which fashion photography, especially since the 80s and 90s, was greatly influenced by the aesthetics of pornography. Feminist scholar and historian Sheila Jeffreys wrote about this relationship in her book “Beauty and Misogyny“, which contains a whole chapter about the “pornochic” phenomenon. The writer describes how, as pornography and prostitution became mainstream industries during the late 20th century, certain practices that were before only seen in pornographic images became present in advertising and in the fashion industry, creating new expectations and beauty standards for women. Jeffreys comments specifically on the way these industries use nudity in their visual language.
“One way in which fashion advertising is following pornography is that
nakedness is becoming de rigeur. Breasts are now routinely exposed, either
completely or behind filmy drapery that is entirely seethrough. The
designers and photographers use nakedness precisely to get media attention.
It is unlikely that the revealing clothes will find much of a market
among women but that does not matter in a time when fashion labels are so
desperate for custom that any attention which might boost their perfume
and handbag lines is worth having. One such fashion photo covering one
quarter of the back page of The Age newspaper in Melbourne showed a
woman wearing only part sleeves and a low-slung skirt in a non-seethrough
fabric. The model was otherwise naked except for an apron of transparent
cloth covering her upper body. The commentary under the picture runs, ‘A
model shows off an outfit by New Designer Toni Maticevski at the
Melbourne Fashion Festival yesterday. Maticevski’s feminine collection
features unorthodox cutting and draping, pleating and asymmetric hemlines’
(Express, 2002). It is not the hemlines that lead to the photo being
included and women are unlikely to race to buy the apron.”
Among many things, pornography has influenced aesthetic trends such as heavy makeup, complete removal of pubic hair, extremely high heels (Jeffreys has a chapter in her book dedicated entirely to high heels and the male fetish of making women unable to run or walk properly), and even more damaging practices like silicone breast implants, surgery to remove parts of the vulva, like the labia or clitoral hood, and has also set a standard of extreme thinness.
It is possible to see the influence of pornography-filtered-through-fashion in the Facebook Dude’s project. Besides the clean shaven vulvas on the models, as well as their hairless legs and armpits, many of the poses are markedly artificial and uncomfortable, with twisted spines to better frame breasts and buttocks. Some of the photography had a more disturbing tone. One young woman was photographed lying in bed, hugging a pillow between her legs and shielding herself with her hands in a defensive position. Another had her face covered with a piece of seethrough cloth that was jammed inside her mouth, hiding her face and transforming her into a nondescript hole.
It is also important to point out that none of the elements that compose those images is problematic by itself. Black-and-white photography can be used to create powerful images, removing color as an element of distraction and focusing solely on the shapes, light and contrast. I’m particulary fond of black-and-white architecture photography, which, in it’s best instances, has the power to find beauty in otherwise unremarkable urban elements that we completely ignore on a daily basis. And soft lighting can be used to give an ethereal feeling to photos, and works particulary well when shooting small objects and natural elements like plants and insects.
In the same manner, female nudity can be used in photography as a way to break from the tradition of picturing women as sights/objects to be seen, and even more importantly, breaking from the historical tradition that brings us from the Venus to the pornochic fashion editorial. One example that I like a lot are some of the images from ESPN The Magazine Body Issue, that shows pictures of nude athletes of both sexes. While some of the photos of female athletes have a more eroticized composition, plenty of them are photographed in dynamic poses, showing off their powerful musculature and emphasizing their strength and athletic potency, alluding to the ancient Greek statues of athletes and warriors.
Let’s then go back to the way the Facebook Dude explained his art project:
“Just correcting you, they’re not just “female nudes”, they’re photos of human beings, taken with the utmost respect, showing them in an organic manner. To combat the use of the female body by sexist society, by men or something related to men, we must combat it with the body, in a way that this transgression removes it’s eroticization. Each women I photograph has full free speech, being it in her body or in her voice. I’m just the bearer.”
Throughout this post we could see that yes, his photos are female nudes, confirmed from an historical analysis. No, they are not made with respect, since the style and aesthetic choices come from a tradition of using women’s bodies as decorative objects, made by and for men. Based on this, we can also affirm that there’s absolutely nothing transgressive about this project. Afterall, it is essentialy an heir of a millenia-old European artistic line, and as for de-eroticizing it, we also analyzed the pornographic influences in the composition of the work.
So, just correcting you, Facebook Dude, everything you said is bullshit.
As as for being “just the bearer”, that’s a very nice way to evade responsibility for the manner in which you chose to portray these women. Because yes, you can try using this tired, old neoliberal choosey-choice discourse and free speech, but even if the women themselves chose their poses, you chose the framing, you chose the lighting, you chose the background, you chose to photograph these models, women several decades younger than you, naked, because you wanted to see them naked. And you decided to put the pictures on Instagram attached with their full names, without even thinking about how a potential employer can Google their names during a job interview process and find their nude pictures. And it’s you who’s gaining fame and participating in gallery shows with this project of yours.
So explain to me, Facebook Dude, how does your project benefit women? Why aren’t you using your experience and your network of professional contacts to create opportunities for female photographers, instead of using women’s bodies to improve your own career? Are you donating any money or resources to shelters or other services that help women in domestic violence situations? Your models are telling stories of abuse and deep trauma, which is the reason why you wanted to photograph them in the first place. Are you helping these women get any kind of real mental healthcare, or are you just exploiting their vulnerability to further your own agenda?
And talking about respect, do you really think the way you talked to me was respectful? Do you really think exchanging three sentences with a complete stranger and then asking photograph her naked ass right away is respectful behavior?
You are a flesh collector, Facebook Dude. You saw a text written by a woman who sparked your curiosity and your first reaction was the desire to add this woman, naked and vulnerable, to your personal collection. You did not show the slightest disposition to interact with me as an intellectual peer, or in discussing my ideas. You, before even talking to me as a human being, already imagined me in the nude. You, like any average, unremarkable male, get your kicks off of seeing a distressed woman.
You are merely one among thousands of male photographers who feel entitled to undressing and exposing women in the name of an empty, selfish “art”. Your type, the creepy photographer who collects black-and-white female nudes, is so incredibly common that it’s frequently represented in movies, TV shows, books and even videogames.
You are just another common, mediocre pseudoartist, repeating what other men did centuries before you, incapable of real transgression or even of self-reflection.
The truth is that the only reason that I, specifically, got your attention is because you don’t have any woman like me in your collection. I’m a novelty. More than that, I’m a challenge. You read my text where I proudly and openly declared that I belong to no man and that I reject the male worldview, and that bothered you. You wanted to see me naked and vulnerable in your bed to prove me wrong. Like a big game hunter in a safari, you wanted to catch the most exotic beast, the wildest and hardest to tame, and add her to your trophy collection.
And when you received a “no”, you felt the need to justify yourself. Because, deep inside, you don’t even believe in your own excuses.
At the end of the day, my only wish is that soon we will all be Artemis, Hecate, Medusa, and that no woman will ever again agree to undress to be your Venus.
I was a weird girl, four years old and wild, ripping out ribbons and headbands, getting dirt on my pretty dresses. I turned walls into forests with a box of crayons, telling stories about mighty beasts that hunted and ate men. I sunk my milk teeth into the flesh of bullies, a little beast myself, screaming and vocal and as sarcastic as a four year old can be. I never wanted to be a princess, I wanted to be a dog, a tiger, an alligator, a fire-breathing dragon, something with sharp fangs and claws, something that people wouldn’t find so infuriatingly dainty and cute.
I was a weird girl, nine years old and a tomboy, solving problems with my fists, carrying rocks, broken pencils and small toys in my pockets. I spent my time with videogames, superheroes and dinosaurs, writing stories about epic adventures, distant lands and fearsome enemies. Most of my characters were boys. I figured that girls didn’t go on adventures, not the proper ones at least. It was strange for a girl to crave such things, to run and climb, to have scraped knees and dirty feet, to want to wrestle and explore, or so the other girls told me, making it clear that I did not belong with them. I did not belong with the boys either. I was stuck in between.
I was a weird girl, thirteen years old and a loner. Face buried into books, trying to distract myself from a poorly-repressed cauldron of boiling, hormone-fueled anger I kept inside me. No one ever told me being a teenage girl would be such a raw deal, that ramming a fist in the smug face of a boy who just groped me was utterly socially unnaceptable, but the groping itself was forgiven, because boys will be boys. No one told me that maturity would be a code word for passivity. No one prepared me for the sharp rise in expectations that happened seemingly overnight, and that, as my body, the traitor, grew and bled and shaped itself into something alien, I was supposed to fight it back. Cover it, trim it, pluck it, paint it, and it all felt so futile. My body was an eldritch thing. It did not want to be beautiful. I could never manage it, to turn my body into a tame, easy-to-handle, bonsai version of myself.
I was a weird girl, failed woman, half-beast, and above all, ugly. Fourteen years old and so confused, wondering why every time my best friend hugged me or held my hand I felt a surge of contradicting emotions, at the same time wanting to pull her closer and push her away, and ultimately freezing in place like a rabbit, leading her to think I just didn’t want to be touched at all.
I let her think that, because it was easier this way. I didn’t have a name for whatever the hell was happening but I knew it was wrong. I knew that something inside me was deeply, fundamentally twisted, and it was better not to think of it. I couldn’t shake it though, something wicked bubbling under my skin, begging to be let out. It made no sense. Girls don’t think of other girls like that. Girls don’t touch other girls like that. Girls don’t kiss other girls.
Well, maybe weird girls do.
And maybe weird girls can go on adventures too. Maybe weird girls can wrestle and get dirt in their clothes. Or maybe it’s not so weird to yearn to be free. Maybe it’s not so weird for a girl, weird or not, to love other girls.
A litte disclaimer, this post was made with a Brazilian audience in mind. Some of what is written here might not accurately portray the reality of other countries.
The pressure to maintain a feminine attitude and appearance is a constant reality of women’s lives, and we are all very aware of the consequences we can face for defying the gender role imposed on us by society. Such consequences can affect our family life, our romantic relationshipt, our career. Women who refuse to present themselves in a feminine manner are considered immature, lazy, slobbish, or even – the worst of all insults – lesbians. This gender policing is even stricter when we are talking about black women, fat women, or any woman who does not fit into the unnatainable eurocentric standards shown in the covers of fashion magazines.
This constant policing of our own appearance is costly for women in many ways. First of all, it is important to point out the significant investment of time needed for the maintenance of femininity, deemed the “third shift” by American author Naomi Wolf in her book “The Beauty Myth“. Together with the first and second shifts, referring to paid out-of-home labor and domestic labor, Wolf points out that the way women are pressured to attain an impossible beauty standard is a tool used to exhaust women and rob us of our leisure time, as it can be seen in this excerpt from the book:
Throughout the West, women’s employment was stimulated by the widespread erosion of the industrial base and the shift to information and service technologies. Declining postwar birthrates and the resulting shortage of skilled labor means that women are welcome to the labor pool: as expendable, nonunionized, low-paid pink-collar-ghetto drudges. Economist Marvin Harris described women as a “literate and docile” labor pool, and “therefore desirable candidates for the information-and people-processing jobs thrown up by modern service industries.” The qualities that best serve employers in such a labor pool’s workers are: low self-esteem, a tolerance for dull repetitive tasks, lack of ambition, high conformity, more respect for men (who manage them) than women (who work beside them), and little sense of control over their lives. At a higher level, women middle managers are acceptable as long as they are male-identified and don’t force too hard up against the glass ceiling; and token women at the top, in whom the female tradition has been entirely extinguished, are useful. The beauty myth is the last, best training technique to create such a work force. It does all these things to women during work hours, and then adds a Third Shift to their leisure time.
Besides the cost in hours, we also need to consider the psychologic cost of the requirement of submissive behavior and the constant vigilance of one’s own appearance. For example, in her thesis for the Occidental College, Kate Handley described the way women alter their behavion when accompanied by men. Handley’s research, made from the observation of 18 tables at a restaurant during a ten hour period, shows that women, when in presence of male company, tend to order food that’s lower in calories, gesticulate less, consume the food slower and take smaller bites. The researcher also observed that, when in company of other women, they tend to eat faster, talk louder and even speak with their mouths full. Though the research was not made in strict scientific fashion, with a very small sample size, the constant self-policing of one’s own femininity is a tendency that has been pointed out by other studies. Scholars from Brigham Young University and Princeton University found out that women tend to speak less when outnumbered by men, and a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that women tend to minimize their career aspirations when speaking to a possible romantic patner, believing that professional ambition and a high salary would make them unnatractive. I believe most of us can observe similar situations on our day to day life.
The third cost of femininity is the easiest to measure: the financial cost. Data from the Commerce Federation of São Paulo shows that brazilians spent 20,3 billion reais in beauty-related services in 2012. While this piece of data is not available, it’s reasonable to assume that most of this money comes from women’s pockets, as men are not usual clients for manicure and pedicure services, hairdressers and body hair removal services.
For a little thought experiment on the financial cost of the performance of femininity I’ve decided to do some informal research. I entered the closest drugstore available to me, in a middle class neighborhood in São Paulo, Brazil, and took note of the prices of some items related to beauty and femininity.
To create a parameter on which we can judge the prices of those items, I’m going to post here some reference values, keeping in mind that they all refer to São Paulo, Brazil, in January 2017, and are in Brazilian reais.
Minimum wage, one month salary: R$ 937,00
One train/bus/metro ticket: R$ 3,80
One liter of gasoline: R$ 3,20
Five kilograms of rice, “Tio João” brand: R$ 16,69
One 500ml bottle of dish soap, “Ypê” brand: R$ 2,02
One 3 liter container of laundry soap, “OMO” brand: R$ 36,96
With these values in mind, I’ve also took as a rule to always consider the cheapest item among the ones available in each category, and I did not include fancy cosmetics, sold in shelves separated by brand, which are significantly more expensive than average and are not an usual purchase for the average Brazilian woman.
Let’s move to our first item: razors.
Body hair removal is one of the most stringent impositions society does to women, and this is specially true when we’re talking about Brazil, internationally known as the home of fully bald genitalia, deforested by hot wax. On a daily basis, though, the most convenient option is to shave in the shower. Sold for R$ 9,90, the package with two razors looks like a good deal, but with the hot Brazilian climate and the frequently-exposed shins that come with it, shaving becomes pretty much a daily activity, and the razor blades soon become dull and useless.
And if you have legs like mine, those razors are single-use and you’re gonna spend one on each leg.
If you are a woman who uses razors to remove your body hair, chances are you will also take home a can of shaving foam. The cheapest option I found was sold for R$ 13,99, adding to a total of R$ 23,89 for the razor + foam combo.
Another option available in the drugstore is cold wax sheets, which are less effective than hot wax but just as painful. The self-flagellation wax sheets are sold in two versions, one for the body, for R$ 15,99, and one for the face, for R$ 9,99. The chemical composition of the two products is exactly the same, as it can be verified on the manufacturer’s website here and here. Which means they are effectively selling you the same stuff twice.
The third option available are chemical depilatory creams, a solution made out of thioglycolic acid and potassium hydroxide that destroy the keratin molecules that form the hair. Again, there’s one version for the body and one for the face, sold for R$ 23,49 and R$ 15,79 respectively. Unlike the cold wax, the chemical composition of these two creams is not identical. The face version contains more ingredients. I do not know enough about chemistry to know if these ingredients make any difference, but in case someone wants to take a look, the composition can be seen here and here.
By the end of the day denying our hairy mammal nature might not be the best idea when health is concerned. Hair removal, specially waxing, can cause ingrown hairs, foliculitis, contact dermatitis, wax burns, among other skin problems. Complete removal of hair in the genital area, a practice that has become more common due to the widespread presence of pornographic imagery, can have even more serious consequences. The genital area is hot and moist, a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, who can cause infection due to micro-lesions caused by plucking out the hair or small cuts caused by a razor. There is also evidence that removal of pubic hair may increase the chance of infection with an STD.
As for the myth that not removing your body hair is unhygienic, if you believe this at least be coherent and shave your head. And your eyebrows too.
On the topic of hygiene, we have here an example of the infamous “feminine soap”, AKA soap for your pussy, which was on sale and was sold for R$ 14,99.
Though the package proudly displays claims that the product is recommended by gynecologist, doctors actually recommendcaution when using the product or even completely disencourage the use, as at best the product will not work, and at worse it can damage the vaginal flora or cause allergies. The overall recommendation is to wear loose clothing, avoid synthetic materials for underwear and wash your vulva with water.
In short, this is a questionable product that owes good part of its sales to the idea that the female genitalia is naturally dirty and smelly. The constant use of perfumes, soaps and other substances that mask the natural smell and secretions of the vagina will also prevent a woman from knowing the natural state of her own body, therefore preventing her from identifying changes that can actually signify a health problem.
There is no real need and no benefit in masking the natural smell of our vulva with flowery perfumes. We need to ask ourselves who benefits from our lack of self-knowledge.
Still on the genital area, I’ve found this product for washing underwear specifically. A lot of women handwash their underwear, in part to prevent damage to a delicate or expensive item that can’t be machine washed, in part for believing that the dirty panties will “infect” the rest of the wash load – I was raised believing on this second one -, but what really got my attention about this product was something else.
The first point that made me raise an eyebrow was the price of the product. The laundry soap I used as reference above is sold for R$ 36,96 in three liter containers, for a total of R$ 12,32 for one liter. This panty soap comes in a 300ml bottle and costs R$ 7,89, for a total of R$ 26,30 per liter. The manufacturer does not provide the chemical composition of this soap in its website, but I seriously doubt it is something distinctive enought to justify costing over twice as much as regular soap.
Also, notice the pink-labeled bottle next to the one I photographed. It’s another version of the same laundry soap, claiming to be ideal for washing teen underwear. On the manufacturer’s website I also found a version to specifically wash bikinis and another for gym clothes. Again, I cannot confirm if each of these products has a different chemical composition or not, but to me it seems like a simple market segmentation tactic, a marketing technique that divides a target demographic in smaller segments in order to sell more products of the same kind. For example, in the panty soap case, a woman who goes to the gym and has a teenage daughter who likes to swim might buy four bottles of soap instead of one.
This market segmentation technique, in specific gendered segmentation, is well explained in this video by The Checkout, on YouTube.
Now let’s check some skin products. We have here a cream that claims to reduce cellulite, sold for R$ 54,99, and one to reduce stretch marks, for R$ 55,99.
Let’s start with cellulite. I consider cellulite treatments a particulary nefarious way to separate women from their hard-earned money, because cellulite is not even a health condition. It causes no damage to the body, and is merely caused by the way fat cells organize in the female body.
The diagram above represents the differences in the layout of fat cells in male and female bodies. In men, cells are organized in a crisscrossing net of collagen threads, and when this man accumulates fat the cells expand and push the skin evenly. In women fat cells are organized in cube-like structures, and when these expand they push against the skin in specific points, causing the “orange peel” effect known as cellulite. This biological distinction allows women to store a larger quantity of body fat, essential in case of pregnancy.
Cellulite is a secondary sex characteristic, and the great majority of women has it. How visible it is depends mostly on genetic factors and on the quantity of subcutaneous fat one specific woman stores, though cellulite is very common in thin women as well. You can use every cream in the market, exfoliate every day, or even get invasive treatments done, like liposuctions and chemical peelings, but if you have a genetic predisposition to visible cellulite none of that will help. And this is true for pretty much every woman, from 85% to 98% according to a 2014 study.
Is it worth it to spend money on ineffective treatments to solve something that’s not even a problem?
As for stretch marks, they are created in situations where there is a rapid expansion of cutaneous tissue and skin cells can’t grow fast enough to keep up, resulting in the creation of scar tissue. It’s common during pregnancy, puberty, rapid weight gain or even during rapid muscle mass gain. Health-wise, they are just like any other scar, leaving the skin a little more sensitive but not affecting its integrity or regeneration capacity in any other way. Like other scars, stretch marks tend to fade away with time. They are a purely aesthetic concern.
Like others in this list, the efficacy of anti-aging products is questionable. While clinical tests show change in the skin appearance and the minimization of wrinkles after treatment, similar results were achieved with regular moisturizing cream, and with less side effects. The manufacturer does not provide the chemical composition of the product on its website, preventing me from doing more specific research. They line of anti-aging products has seven more items for sale.
By the end of the day, aging is inevitable, and wrinkles are part of the process. The existence of such great variety of anti-aging products is due to us living in a cultural environment where elderly people are devalued, elderly women in special. This pressure to mantain a young appearance is particulary strong in a country like Brazil, which, despite being in the middle of a political and financial crisis, registered more than a million of plastic surgeries per year in the last few years.
And finally, we have some makeup products.
The combined price of the five products displayer here is R$ 77,44. Makeup by itself deserves a whole post, not only being one of the biggest symbols of the performance of femininity, but also because of the recent marketing trend of appropriating feminist language and rhetoric to sell cosmetics, using terms like “empowerment”, exalting women’s bravery and selling an image of freedom and professional success.
The act of painting one’s face has existed since the beggining of humankind and presents itself in diverse ways, from the ritualistic and religious to pure artistic exploration. However, these elements are not present in current makeup culture. What’s there is a constant pressure for women to hide each and every imperfection in their skin, to use shading tricks to disguise the shape of their faces and make them fit an eurocentric beauty standard – the popular “contouring” -, and hide any sign of aging, expression or exhaustion.
Despite the feminist rhetoric, edifying imagery, and the promise of “empowerment” and improved self-esteem, what happens in reality is the heavy implication that a woman should hide her natural facial features to be socially acceptable, and that stepping outside with a “bare face” is shameful. Tabloids and gossip magazines all over the world publish pictures of celebrities with no makeup in a mocking, derogatory tone, as if they were caught in a serious social faux pass. Considering all of this, how can makeup be empowering?
And of course, the major point of this post, in whose pockets do the millions of reais spent in cosmetics by Brazilian women every day end up? Do these companies actually have the well-being of women in mind?
At this point I’ve had to leave the drug store because I had two employees following me around and staring me down in a very hostile manner, so I couldn’t photograph some other commonly worn makeup products, like foundation, blushes and eyeshadow, but if anyone else wants to repeat this little experiment, let me know what you find out.
The total value of the items registered here is R$ 411,13. It’s the equivalent to 108 bus tickets, 79 kilograms of dry beans, 128 liters of gasoline, or almost half of a month’s minimum wage. And while beauty products and services are marketed evocating ideas of self-care and self-love, we can see in the studies linked above that a good amount of them does not even work as promised, and others cause pain and/or have damaging side effects.
In a country such as Brazil, where a significant wage disparity still exists and where women perform a disproportionate share of domestic labor, it is necessary to stop and think about how we are spending our money and our free time, and if the choices we make are really the best for our physical and mental well-being.
And yes, it its undeniable that there are negative consequences for anyone who tries to deviate from society’s norms. It would be naive, or even malicious, to deny that women that refuse to wear makeup, remove body hair, or act in a feminine manner, suffer discrimination or even violence. But we must have an honest, reality-based view of our current situation: these companies want to sell us products that do not bring us any real benefit, and for that they tell us that we are ugly, foul-smelling, lazy and messy if we don’t purchase and use their products. Turning on the television and watching advertising for beauty products is to be constantly insulted, degraded and condescended to.
Though we sometimes have to work with the current system to survive within it, we have to keep in mind that we are enough. We do not need to be in pain or discomfort to realize our own beauty. We don’t need to spend half a salary every month to love our own bodies. We don’t need to look in the mirror and see ourselves as a permanent work in project, always subject to scrutiny and in need of corrections and improvements. We do not need to pluck and paint ourselves to please people who see us as sub-human.
None of that is necessary. It is part of our current reality, but it’s not necessary. Real self-love is to allow yourself to rest, feeding your body without guilt, accepting yourself with all your imperfections, scars, hair, and other features of a flesh-and-blood living creature, without expecting yourself to aim to become some sort of impossible ethereal beauty. Let’s keep this in mind.
One last thing, specific to Brazilian law, if your employer demands that you wear makeup during your work hours, they are legally obliged to either provide the product or to reimburse the employee for the purchase of the items, since Brazilian law obliges the employer to provide uniforms to workers and the mandatory nature of makeup puts it in the uniform category. An example of a lawsuit on this matter can be seen here. I understand the legal system in the US doesn’t seem to favor the worker in this kind of situation, and whether the employer is required to pay for uniforms varies from state to state, as well as the definition of what is actually uniform. It’s something worth researching. Get to know how the law works in your country and/or state.
To end the post in a funny note, this photo below shows the weirdest product I’ve found in that drugstore. It’s a set of four disposable moisturizing boob-stickers, used to glue your breast up so it looks “perky” without a bra, sold for almost double the price of a good quality sports bra.
I wear clothing from the men’s section of the clothing store. My leg hairs are longer than most of the hair in my head. I never wear any makeup, no matter if I’m going out to buy bread in the morning or if I’m going to a party. People often call me “sir”. Others hurl slurs at me, sometimes calling me a “dyke”, sometimes calling me a “faggot”, both showing their disapproval of my physical presentation. I see little kids asking their mothers, in whispers, if I am a boy or a girl. And people ask me all the time, why do I want to look like a man?
The answer is simple. I don’t.
And I do not look like a man.
I look like a woman who refuses to perform femininity.
My unshaven legs do not make me like a man, they’re MY legs, and MY hair, and I am a woman. My “boy’s” clothes are worn on my body, the body of a woman. My naked, unpainted face is the face of a woman. I am a woman, and this is not defined by a haircut or a choice of attire, or by lipstick or high heels, or boxer briefs and men’s deodorant worn over fuzzy unshaven armpits. There’s nothing manly about me.
I am a woman, not by choice, but by fact. Because “woman” is a reality imposed to me, from the day I was born and given a woman’s name, to the day I was six and I was told I couldn’t take off my shirt in a blazing hot summer day because one day I would have breasts, to last night when I walked home in a state of hyper-awareness, my house keys tightly clutched between my fingers, tracking the movements of every man in the dark streets.
I am a woman because, since before my own birth, when an ultrasonography picture informed my parents that I would be born with a vulva, I have been groomed to be a member of the woman class, the breeding stock class, the sex class, the lower class. I was taught to be accomodating and speak softly, to not bring attention to myself and to spare men’s feelings. I was taught that the boy who pulled my hair and threw his toy train at me, aiming for my head, probably did it because he liked me, and boys will be boys anyway. I learned that, if I did the same to him, I was a troublemaker. That my assertiveness is unladylike. That one day I would bear some man’s children, and this was pretty much destiny. That my worth was in my looks, more than in my brain. I am a woman because I was taught all these things, and I am a woman because people expect me to know these lessons by heart, and follow every one of them.
When people ask me why do I want to look like a man, what they’re actually asking is why am I not marking myself as a woman. They’re asking why do I fail to perform the role of femininity, to make myself pleasing and unthreatening to the eyes of the upper class, the man class. My mother once voiced her concerns to me, that my looks would make me a target for male violence, and she is right to be concerned. I am perceived as a member of the lower class who refuses to bear the marks and play the role imposed to me. I refuse to shave my legs to look like a pre-pubescent girl, innocent and vulnerable, or to wear shoes that force me to walk on the tips of my toes, slow and precariously balanced, and this makes men angry, because this is a counscious act of rebellion. This is me saying I am not theirs. I will not please them. I do not desire their approval or their attention. And men often get violent when we refuse to cater to them.
My choices of visual presentation make me a cautionary tale. I am the hairy, ugly, lesbian feminist, the one they warn other women about. “Don’t be like her”, they say, “or no man will ever want you”. But I don’t want them either, and I do not want to look like them, or be like them, or have anything to do with them. I want to be free from men and their bullshit standards. I want to strut around proudly, shamelessly unladylike, looking like a woman looks when she’s not covered in face paint and restrictive clothing, when she doesn’t care about pleasing men.
I do not look like a man, and nothing will ever make me look like one. I am pure, unadulterated woman. I choose myself over them, I choose women over them. If that makes them hate me, so be it. Because I am a woman, they would hate me no matter what I did.
This post was originally released on Tumblr back in February 4th 2014, exactly three years ago, and it is still one of my most reblogged and most commented posts, both for good and for bad. The text was originally inspired by a conversation I had with my mother, right after I walked home with a fresh haircut, which prompted an angry comment from her: “it’s OK to be a lesbian, but why do you want to look like a man?”.
I chewed on what she had said for about a week and came up with this text, more as a vent than anything else, and I got so many interesting responses and thought-provoking comments that it ended up starting discussions on femininity and womanhood that changed my world view. I’m grateful for all the people I met and interacted with because of this post, including the wonderful woman who would later become my partner. I am a different woman today because of it.
I don’t think my mother will ever read this text, and I don’t think she will ever know what she inadvertently started. But in a way, I’m thankful for it as well. She taught me what it means to be a woman, and by challenging her teachings, I’ve found my own path through womanhood.
I’m hoping this blog can start just as many new discussions and that it becomes a space for exploration and self-reflection. Let’s see where we are three years from now.
My new year resolution for 2017 was to back off from social media a little bit. Also, to start a blog.
Because social media is not an effective platform for original text. No one has the patience to read long texts, and I wanna stretch my writing muscles. Plus, social media is distracting and time-wasting. Yeah, I realize sound like old people and like those guys doing TED talks about how social media is turning you into a zombie. In short, I wanted something more substantial than Facebook and Tumblr to write long texts, and also something that gives me more control over how to format my text.
What is this blog going to be about?
The tagline is self-explanatory. It’s going to be about lesbians.
Will it be sexy?
Not in the way you’re expecting.
Is it going to be NSFW?
There will be discussions of sensitive topics like violence and pornography. I’ll avoid NSFW pictures, but don’t let your boss read it over your shoulder.
How often are you going to post?
This blog is gonna be a quality over quantity deal. I want to post well-researched, meaty, original content here. I’ll try to post something new once a week, but I’d rather delay a post to make sure it’s actually good than post something subpar.
I disagree with something you said.
Leave a comment! I encourage thoughtful conversation and debate.
I disagree with something you said and I’m going to be a dick about it.
Your comment will not be published and you will be thoroughly ignored. This is not social media where every asshole has a platform to speak.
I want to say a thing but I don’t want to post it on a comment.
Send me an email. I will answer eventually. Just keep in mind that I am not a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist and I am not qualified to perform these roles. I have a degree in fucking game design. If you wanna talk about games, I’m your woman. If you have a mental health issue, talk to someone who actually knows what they’re doing.
You’re really cranky.
Yes. But in an endearing way.
Enjoy the blog, everyone. Content will be coming soon!