There’s a saying,”It’s not a principle until it costs you something” and one year ago today, I payed up.
To accompany a 3,000 word essay I had written about the complex relationship women have with fashion and body shape and to convey my messaging about the commoditization of women’s bodies I committed to stripping completely bare for prestigious fine arts magazine, TREATS!
It started innocently enough with a scribe writing the line, “like a prized piece of meat hanging from a hook in a slaughterhouse waiting to be carved and sold for its pieces.” Suddenly a very clear image of what needed to accompany the article presented itself. A terrifying image of a woman suspended from a hook alongside animal carcasses, ribcage exposed, clad only in designer heels. It was inhumane, demeaning and absolutely right.
Of course, what complicated things artistically was the fact that the founder of the magazine, Steve Shaw, wanted the author, yours truly, to be the one depicted in such a manner. Suddenly the stakes were raised. Suddenly I knew it was time to commit to my messaging or stay silent.
I have posed for countless shoots. Braved freezing temperatures, smiling for swimsuit catalogs while splashing myself in freezing winter beach water, blue skin coated in body make up. I have walked down a water soaked runway at Fashion week in little more than a few inches of lycra, python around neck. But this, this shoot was different. To be completely and utterly naked and displayed in such a graphic manner that was not intended to be alluring, without the warmth of flattering lighting or even a frosting of lace or silk or lycra was deeply confronting and new.
I believe that in order to grow we need to do things that challenge us, scare us and push us out of our comfort zone. Draped in this belief alone I committed.
I wasn’t sure people would read my 3,000 word essay but I sure as hell knew they’d look at the image and ponder its messaging. It would be provocative, perhaps more cerebrally than sexually. This was my hope.
Being a mother who has seen her body morph in a thousand ways to carry a child and feed her made the boldness of the shoot all the more terrifying and empowering.
Thank you to the magazine’s founder, famed photographer Steve Shaw for capturing these powerful images with the delicate balance of brutality and sensitivity.
I hope they provoke your thoughts and I hope they inspire you to read the article below, The Skin We Choose...I promise, it will be well worth your time.
And please share your comments!
So without further ado…..
THE SKIN WE CHOOSE
Enslaver, or savior? Kathryn Eisman explores our complex relationship with fashion.
I’m standing here naked in five-inch heels; the only other thing lacing my skin is the cold breath of the industrial air conditioning whispering, no, howling down my back in this barren white studio.
The chill is making my nipples so hard they ache. I can see them out of the lower corner of my eye, pointing forward with the same indiscreet sexuality as my pointed stilettos beneath them.
My feet ache too, connecting me to my physical body with every pained exhale breath, drawing me back to the flesh so I don’t get lost in my mind. The physical pain is a relief and distraction from the existential struggle I’d otherwise be facing standing here like this before you. I’m not even conscious of how shameful this might look; when the soles of my feet are so close to bleeding there’s little time for soul-searching.
I can walk, but slowly, carefully. It’s easier to stay still, like a prized piece of meat hanging from a hook in a slaughterhouse waiting to be carved and sold for its pieces, swaying ever so slightly in the grey draft.
If I were attacked, I couldn’t run away, not in these shoes. I would have to fall prey or fight back, the very shoes that are holding me captive serving as my weapon, my lethal liberator.
You can ravish me, but you would equally be my victim. I have chosen to make myself prey by wearing these heels, so perhaps that makes me the real predator, instigating my own visual assault. I have invited your eyes to dissect and dice me into digestible pieces and so control you with your desire to control me.
Of course I don’t parade myself around naked like a choice cut of meat every day – that would be absurd. And cold. For starters, I’d be arrested. So I do what so many women do every single day, often without conscious thought, although perhaps not without intent: I put on a dress. A dress just long enough to look respectable but tight enough to reveal the curve between the back of my thigh and my rump. It might be in a pretty color with a feminine trim to confuse you into thinking that I’m the innocent and you’re the pervert, when it’s quite the other way around.
The neckline skimming just above my breasts with only a hint of cleavage to suggest that I am proper, above objectification. But my shoes give me away. They’re angled so sharply that I’m exposed, at least to the observant, for what I’m truly seeking: your desire, your approval, your attention, your lustful stares. I admit what most women don’t dare utter: I want you to lust after me, and I have relinquished my comfort in order to hold that power over you. Comfort is my sacrifice.
With every inch that I rise above the ground in these heels, I feel another layer of pain. At 1 inch, 22% of my body weight rests on the balls of my feet. At 3 inches it’s 79%. At 5 inches, I am 90% pain, I am literally walking on nails. But my agony is worth it for the pleasure it evokes in your gaze.
This shift in weight puts us both off balance, forcing my body to compensate by pushing out my chest and protruding my posterior just to remain upright. I have artfully (and painfully) disabled myself enough to alter my gait to exaggerate all of my sexual signalers, my artificial stilts increasing my leg-to-torso ratio just enough to tip the universal indicators of attractiveness in my favor. I am Jessica Rabbit before she goes into spinal traction. Now you want me and you don’t even know why.
Dressing to be Undressed
There’s an art to seduction, just as there’s an art to serving a seven-course meal without letting your diner lose his appetite (or fall asleep) along the way. It’s about giving it away in tiny pieces, simultaneously stimulating hunger while satisfying it.
In an age when nudity has become commonplace, even boring, the strategic covering of our bodies has perhaps become a more powerful tool than ever, even if it’s only a pair of heels.
Indeed, the great seductresses of history have known well the power of fashion not only for what it hides (yes, the most desirable part of the body is the part draped covered in fabric) but what it reveals about the wearer.
A burlesque dancer’s costume, for example, is so central to her performance in the establishment of her “identity” that if she were forced to change outfits, she’d have to redesign her entire routine. She understands that at the very heart of seduction is the promise of the giving up of oneself, but for that to have any value, first we must have a sense of who that “self” is. That’s where fashion comes in.
Naked, we are anonymous, different shapes of the same clay; clothed, we are customized. Naked, we are what was given to us; clothed, we are what we’ve made of what we’ve been given.
To fully understand who someone is, we must not seek to look behind the cloaks and masks, but rather examine the cloaks and masks themselves. In a world of infinite choice, at every price point, our reasons for choosing certain items of clothing over others and wearing them as extensions of ourselves reveal the essence of who we are and what we are seeking. We are never more exposed than when we are fully clothed.
The simple practice of getting dressed each day is one of the most empowering acts we can participate in, consciously or subconsciously deciding for ourselves who we will be in this world. The opposite of a uniforms, which is designed to make us “uniform” and to subordinate our personal identity to the common cause, individual dress establishes just that – individuality.
The Real Power of Fashion
Fashion isn’t just used to seduce a man or a woman, of course; it can be used to seduce entire nations.
Hundreds of years before Christian Louboutin crafted his resplendent red-soled shoes favored by high-end hookers and #bossladies alike, another very clever Frenchman used the blood-red heel to establish hierarchy and control.
When Louis XIV inherited the French monarchy in the 17th century, the wealthy aristocrats who presided over their vast landholdings as unofficial kings threatened his very rule. Faced with his declining authority, Louis XIV, being, well, French, turned to fashion and decreed that only those in favor with the King could wear the red-heeled shoes preferred by nobility.
Of course the color red had long been associated with nobility (due to the high cost of producing its crimson pigment, often by crushing tiny insects) and power (red is associated with dominance in many animal species and is directly correlated to levels of testosterone), sin and sexuality (the Book of Isaiah states: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow”; red-light districts; you get the point).
But by regulating who could wear crimson heels, Louis XIV further elevated the color’s exclusivity and subsequently brought his competition to their knees. Not even the most upper-crust member of the French upper class wanted to publicize their fall from grace, so they behaved themselves and traded actual power for the perception of privilege, just as a woman wearing a pair of Louboutins has relinquished her power (to walk across the room without risk of metatarsal injury) and wealth (minimum $900 a pop) for the appearance of privilege and superiority.
Today, wearing these exclusive scarlet-soled stilts acts as a (not-so) secret handshake, clearly signifying to the world – and to other women especially – that the wearer has “made it.” More than a shoe, they are a long, lean, red manicured middle finger up at the world.
The Changing Shape of Identity
It’s impossible to separate the meaning of an item of clothing from the function of the body part upon which it rests.
Our shoulders, which provide the base for our arms, are inextricably linked to our perceived usefulness. Not surprisingly, then, we can trace the evolution of the feminist movement along the exact same lines as the changing width of a woman’s shoulder as expressed through the fashions of those times.
As I stand before you, my shoulders, like most women’s, are just under seven-eighths the width of the average male’s. Yet from front to back they are significantly narrower, making me appear more fragile and feminine, two F-words society cannot untwine, especially when pursuing a third F-word. If I bend over, I can make myself look so meek you want to hold me. If I widen my stance and stand tall I can appear combative, threatening your very manhood.
The same is true of fashion. If I want to make myself appear authoritative and powerful I broaden my shoulders with pads and military-style jackets with razor-sharp corners, imbuing myself with these macho characteristics.
This was first seen in the 1890s with the bold, brazen “emancipated woman” who wore enormous puffy pillow-like sleeves as she scandalously rode a bicycle, the vehicle that first provided her the possibility of independent travel.
Underneath these puffy pillows, of course, she was laden with seven pounds of restrictive underwear and corsetry so tight she could hardly breathe, but these cloud-like shoulders were as high as she was able to ascend towards equality at a time when women weren’t seeking to break through the glass ceiling because they could barely smash through the glass floor.
The second wave of big shoulders came in the 1940s, during the Second World War, when military clothing with its broad boxy shoulders was adopted by the general public, including women, who were joining the workforce in droves and “rolling up their sleeves” to help the war effort. Suddenly women were working in factories and doing “male” jobs, “shouldering” the responsibility of keeping America strong and productive.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that big shoulders made their biggest impact, literally, in the form of quarterback-like shoulder padding. In the aftermath of the incense-infused 1970s female liberation movement, women stormed the boardroom en masse in their power suits, feeling they had to adopt masculine traits (and physicality) to be taken seriously in a man’s world. A journalist at the time noted, perhaps optimistically, that “women can never go home again – they’ll never fit through the front door.”
Today, we can finally drop the pretense along with the shoulder padding as we realize we’re much better being self-actualized women than second-rate men. Our shoulders may have relaxed, however, but make no mistake, our efforts to contort ourselves to fit an unrealistic idea of beauty and power has not.
Self-Objectification as Self-Empowerment
These days, in civilized cultures at least, men no longer dare call a woman “loose” for abandoning her corset. Mere decades after we earned the right to comfortably sigh with relief for extracting ourselves from the limiting clothes and gender roles of the past, we find ourselves once again using fashion to manipulate our own bodies in order to fit in or to stand out. Only this time we’re the ones consciously choosing to slide our calloused feet into incapacitating stilettos or tightening our new corset strings in the form of “waist-training” girdles.
Scroll down your Instagram feed and you’ll likely stumble across an image of a woman subjecting herself to waist training. Coco Chanel may have freed women from the corset, but Coco Austin and Kim Kardashian are putting us back in them. This time, it’s social media-savvy women who are choosing to augment their silhouette to produce an unnatural hyper-sexualized version of themselves worthy of a million “likes.” Or are they just seeking to be worthy of being liked?
Kim Kardashian may be hawking a message of self-governed objectification as empowerment and laughing all the way to the bank, but don’t blame Kim; she didn’t make up the rules.
Science has proven that women with a smaller waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) are widely seen as more sexually desirable. This beauty standard seems largely unaffected by social change; from 1955 to 1987, a period during which women arguably made the greatest gains toward “equality,” the average WHRs of Miss America contestants and Playboy Playmates barely moved, from 0.68 to 0.71. It seems natural evolution has not caught up with social revolution. We may have burnt our bras, but damn it, perky breasts and hourglass figures are still considered the gold standard when it comes to beauty.
Not only does a tiny waist suggest fertility, it’s also a subliminal (and accurate) indicator of overall health. Women with a 0.7 WHR have optimal levels of estrogen and are less likely to develop common diseases such as cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, and ovarian cancer. Widen out to a 0.8 WHR and beyond and there’s a corresponding decrease in pregnancy rates, irrespective of weight or body mass index.
Wouldn’t you know it, after all our strides and gender battles, it’s cruel (Mother) Nature that has reduced our perceived worth to a number. The simple mathematical equation of dividing your waist circumference by your hip circumference is all you need to determine your value. Yes, nature is every bit as cruel as man for heralding these unrealistic angles and restrictive ratios as ideals of beauty.
So, for the minor risk of permanent organ damage, can we really be blamed for seeking to enhance our sexual attractiveness by manipulating our God-given waist-to-hip ratio, which, regardless of education or sense of humor, remains the most powerful sexual trigger of all?
In a world still governed by survival of the sexiest, surely we’ve earned the right to fight back with fashion and use every tool at our disposal to increase our chances of survival and reproduction. Fuck natural selection.
If you’re reading this thinking you’re above self-disfigurement in the name of desirability, ask yourself this: Have you ever used a filter or an app like Facetune to digitally alter your appearance on social media? Aren’t they the same thing, simply a digital form of augmentation befitting a digital world? With a tiny swipe of the screen, you can constrict your waist, broaden your shoulders, elongate your legs. You are the Wizard behind the curtain, falsifying who you are and luring in the Lion and Tin Man and anyone else looking for something because they too are missing a part of themselves. But you’re too busy adding the Valencia filter to your Yellow Brick Road to ask the question: If it’s your hand doing the manipulating, is it you or the world that’s being manipulated?
At the heart of this quandary remains the fact that we are spiritual creatures trapped in a physical world, forced to reduce our infinite magnificence into tangible fragments. We know that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, yet we’re measured in terms of reproductive aptitude. We’ve proven we’re every bit as smart and capable as men, yet the average woman remains 5 inches shorter than the average man. What are we to do? Sure, we can wear 5-inch heels to see men eye-to-eye, but in doing so we’d better be prepared to ask for their help just to walk.
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