Posts Categorized: body image

Reader Request: Bodies and Decency

Reader Leah sent me this question via email:

Views on body hair seem to me like part of a larger trend of regarding certain secondary sexual characteristics of women as obscene or inappropriate. Here are several examples:

“Bikini area” – The top 6″ of my inner thighs grow pubic hair rather than leg hair. I don’t think I’m allowed to wear a bathing suit that shows this hair. Showing leg hair might be seen as icky or unconventional, but I’d be concerned about being reported for indecent exposure if I showed pubic hair. I’ve never seen a woman wearing a bathing suit that showed this type of hair in this location. (Incidentally, shaving gives me terrible ingrown hairs, so I eventually started wearing board shorts when I swim. I’m quite satisfied with that solution, but it makes me “weird” and people ask why I don’t wear a standard bathing suit.)

Nipples – You’ve mentioned several times that you have permanently erect nipples. Mine aren’t permanently erect, but they might as well be since I get cold easily. It irks me that it would be considered inappropriate to go around with the outlines of nipples visible through my shirt. (I’m pretty flat chested so otherwise have little need to wear a bra, and I find the thicker, more supportive bras uncomfortable. No good solution here.)

“Camel toe” – When did this become a thing? Having random creases in the clothing around one’s groin probably isn’t the most flattering look, but now there’s a name for it and it’s considered gross. As someone with unusually large labia, I’m more likely to have problems with this than some women are.

Certainly there are plenty of characteristics that are considered gross and shouldn’t be, such as being fat. However, the specific ones I list are secondary sexual characteristics. I’m usually fine with violating norms for what’s stylish or flattering, but it’s much harder when one is considered obscene and when it’s a sexual characteristic. What do you think?

Oh, I think so many things. I think about my friends with big busts who have been called “slutty” even when they’re wearing high necklines and layers. I think about the movie “The Cooler” – which is just marvelous, by the way – and how I learned that one of the sex scenes originally showed the leading lady’s pubic hair which caused the MPAA to give it an NC-17 rating. Because women’s body hair is that scandalous. (The scene was removed so the movie could get bumped down to R.) I think about the fact that unlined bras are almost impossible to find because of nipple fear. I think about the multitudinous ways in which women’s bodies are policed, and how strict and judgmental that policing becomes when it pertains to body features that are related to sex and sexuality.

But beyond that, I don’t know what to think. American culture is simultaneously obsessed with pushing the boundaries of bodily exposure and shaming anyone who enjoys exposing her body. I have no idea how to react to that, much less change it. I understand that the simplest way to push back is to refuse to conform – let your nipples show through, wear your swimsuit even if you haven’t shaved or waxed your bikini line – but, as Leah points out, when you run the risk of crossing the “decency” boundary, it makes that pushback trickier to navigate.

Have any of you had direct experiences with these issues? Have you been scolded or called out for dressing in clothes that expose or reveal secondary sexual characteristics? How did you react? Any ideas for how to stem the tide?

Related Posts

Body Image Barriers

women in leadership

I know I’ve told this story before, but it has shaped my worldview so I’m gonna lay it on ya again:

A while back, a dear friend of mine told me something that stopped me cold. She said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Sally, do you know why I don’t run for political office myself? It’s because I could never handle the scrutiny and criticism I’d take for how I look. Women in politics and power are constantly under the microscope for their bodies, grooming, and style, and I just couldn’t take it.”

My friend – from what I can tell – is afraid of very little. She has told me that she truly enjoys conflict resolution and adores speaking in front of large crowds. I can quite easily imagine her fending off rabid wolves to protect her young daughter. She has also worked in politics for years and is incredibly informed about public policy and remarkably passionate about her beliefs. So I was shocked to hear her say that the prospect of dealing with press and public critiques of her looks has prevented her from campaigning.

We talked a bit more about it, and she pointed out that helping women feel confident in their looks removes barriers. We live in a world that frequently evaluates women based on our looks and, if those looks are found to be somehow lacking, dismisses us. We know this. And many of us hesitate to step up to positions of leadership, or speak out against actions we question, or put ourselves in the public eye for fear of censure and dismissal.

Another friend – a gifted musician – recently expressed similar hesitations. She has dabbled a bit in performance and stepped into the spotlight a few times, but she mainly keeps her music on the backburner. Because for every Adele there are 500 Katy Perrys, and if she were really to put her all into her dreams she, too, would risk a life under the microscope. Her style, her figure, her hair, her makeup would all be subject to examination and ridicule. And as talented as she is, the prospect of being constantly held up to the prevailing beauty standard holds virtually no appeal.

And this is valid. Only a select few of us have the drive, ambition, and talent PLUS the thick skin necessary to deal with the deluge of comparison and judgment that comes part and parcel with positions of power and prominence. No one is required to pursue elected office, an executive position, a career in the arts, or any other avenue if the accompanying scrutiny would be too much to bear. No one should sign up for a life that means constant stress and misery. Really. No one at all.

But knowing that many of us have the drive, ambition, and talent but lack that essential thick skin is why I write about style as a tool for empowerment, self-awareness, and confidence. I don’t actually care one whit what any of us looks like. I just want to help women have one less thing to worry about as they chase their dreams, rise to power, or express their creativity. I want to help women see dressing as a creative, helpful, important means of showing self-respect. Because when you’re confident in how you look, some of the appearance-focused flak that comes at you from the media, from petty rivals, from jealous strangers can bounce right off. Your self-assuredness becomes your armor. You can move through the world with a little less weight on your shoulders. You can get on with the work of your life.

If it weren’t for the very real fear of judgment, many of us would spend more time at the beach, wear bright colors, indulge in trends. Many of us would start more conversations with people we find attractive, go to more parties, pose for more photos. And many of us would run for office, demand promotions, pursue careers in the arts, put ourselves in positions of prominence and rock the world. This isn’t a stumbling block for all, but it trips up more women than you might expect. And until the world sees bodily diversity as the gift that it truly is, I’ll do my best to provide knowledge, tools, and armor to everyone who comes here.

Until my friend feels ready to run for office, there’s work to be done. Until my other friend feels confident stepping into the spotlight, there are changes to be made. Until all of you can walk through your lives confident and unselfconscious, until every woman everywhere can pursue any ambition without any hesitation, there are body image barriers that need to be broken.

Image courtesy Robert Hruzek. This is a revived and refreshed post from the Already Pretty archive.

Related Posts

Youth, Body Image, Aging


I’m working on a style and body image project that centers on teen girls, and it has been an amazing experience so far. I’ve interviewed about a dozen teens from all across the U.S. and it was incredibly eye-opening to get their input on these topics. Only a few had experiences with online bullying, most of them had very strong opinions about people and styles they viewed as “slutty,” nearly all of them post selfies on Instagram, and at least 75% of them think Taylor Swift has great fashion sense. I loved hearing from them and getting them to talk about their own levels of self-confidence, how they conceptualize their personal styles, and how they’re affected by the media.

I’ve talked to friends about this project, and they’ve all expressed excitement and optimism. Many have said something along the lines of, “If you get to them young, maybe the next generation of women won’t become quite so bogged down by weight worries and body image issues.” And I hope that’s true. I hope so hard that’s true, I can barely express it. If I can help even one teen girl feel better about herself and move through the world unencumbered by body dysmorphia or self-image hang-ups, I will be thrilled beyond words. Seriously. And there’s a very good chance that will happen.


I hate to doubt something that hasn’t even come to fruition yet, but there is a but.

Based on my own experiences and the anecdotes I’ve been told by clients, readers, and friends, I’ve come to believe that adolescence can be a period of individually specific hazing that can’t be easily influenced or redirected. As an adult, you can step in, take a teen girl by the hand, tell her about media literacy and Health At Every Size and the power of style, and she still might have to battle her own inner body image demons for a few years. All the facts and tools and support in the world may prevent the onset of self-loathing and help her move toward a positive body image, or it may land on deaf ears until she has learned and grown a bit more. I had to live through my own body-centric worries for many years and come to understand things through personal experience. I can’t honestly say if a body image intervention at age 14 or 16 would’ve helped me. It might have, and I do wish I’d had more forums for discussion and supportive resources to consult. But it might have bounced right off of me because I needed to work through those lessons on my own.

Aging is quite the double-edged sword. As women age, we often feel devalued and ignored. Youth is so prized in our time and culture that an aging woman can feel unimportant to the point of invisibility. And yet as we age, many women also worry less about what people think and say about us. As my girlfriends and I get older, some of the issues that once plagued us fall away, diminish in importance, pale in comparison with the priorities we’ve set for ourselves and our families. And because we’ve lived through these decades had had these lives and accumulated this knowledge, we can let them fall away and feel lighter for the release of burden. But somehow, sadly, our younger selves just couldn’t. We needed to have experiences and learn things for ourselves, and those things could only happen with time, patience, aging.

Humans are stubborn and often need direct, personal experience to make a lesson sink in. Some things can be taught and influenced, some just have to be lived through. So I expect that this project won’t have the far-reaching impact that I dream it could. But I am in favor of offering tools and knowledge and support at all ages and stages of life. And if one teen girl feels better, that will be enough.

Image courtesy kris krüg.

Related Posts