“The highest trending news topic this week has undoubtedly been Caitlyn Jenner’s debut, with a 22-page feature in Vanity Fair and a cover to boot. The reactions have ranged from a massive outpouring of support to disrespectful bloggers refusing to call Caitlyn by her new chosen name. Some celebrities have voiced their support on social media, while others have tweeted transphobic comments (obviously without the support of their PR team), almost immediately retracting them and scrambling to explain what they “really meant.” Some have heralded Caitlyn a hero, while others have condemned her actions based upon religious beliefs.
Interestingly, Jon Stewart took an opportunity to change the conversation entirely during The Daily Show this Tuesday, only one day after Caitlyn’s big reveal. He calls the media out for centering the conversation completely around how she looks. “Welcome to being a woman in America,” he said. He’s not wrong.
The objectification of women in the media has been a topic of conversation for some time, but with Caitlyn’s unique story comes a unique perspective, and the opportunity for a direct comparison. A well-known male athlete was once discussed for topics of substance. What about that same person who now identifies as female?
“Caitlyn, when you were a man, we could talk about your athleticism, your business acumen,” Stewart said. “But now you’re a woman, which means your looks are really the only thing we care about. Which brings us to Phase 2 of your transition: comparative f—ability.”
As female athletes become more sexualized in the media, it’s actually being suggested that the rise of female sports fame is due to these ads, rather than athletic merit. This furthers a “woman first, athlete second” mentality, while David Beckham is free to pose in body-baring Calvin Klein ads, still being primarily identified as a sports hero.
Take the beautiful Vanity Fair photos shot by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz. The photos depict a stunning and confident looking woman in sexy corsets, tight dresses and evening gowns. Some are calling these choices inappropriate, given the fact that Caitlyn herself is quoted in the article as saying, “If you have a list of 10 reasons to transition, sex would be number 10.”
Credit: Vanity Fair
This speaks to the real problem. Women are expected to be sexy, but when depicted as such are condemned and belittled. Rape victims are questioned on their attire, as though wearing a short skirt is tantamount to the forfeiture of one’s sexual autonomy. Women are either wearing too much make-up (trashy) or not enough (unprofessional). Even campaigns like, “Women don’t need to wear make-up!” that aim to empower female choices miss the mark with words like “need.” Of course women don’t need to wear make-up, but what of those of us who want to? Make-up is not just a “necessary” enhancement; it’s an extension of fashion and a form of expression.
I’ll admit that I’m guilty of boxing myself into these damaging methodologies. I recently received some aggressive, unwanted attention from a man while out at a bar and the first thing I did was look down at my own outfit. I thought, Am I provoking this? Are my pants too tight? Seriously, that was my first thought. What a broken, dangerous view of oneself. I quickly dismissed those initial thoughts because I am an intelligent, self-aware adult who knows that the recipient is not to blame for unwanted attention, but those thoughts came from somewhere.
The real issue is the expectation of what “sexy” is. Women will continue to be objectified until we can all agree that being sexy is more comparable to confidence than it is to how much skin is being shown. If Caitlyn feels sexy and confident in a corset, it is her absolute right to present herself that way. If another woman feels sexy and confident in a beautifully tailored suit, why is that less feminine than a woman who shows more of her body?
Women are taught from childhood what’s expected of them in terms of beauty and fashion, and I’ll give you a prime example by using an iconic figure that we’re all familiar with: Barbie. The design of the Barbie doll has come under fire in recent years due to unrealistic body proportions, and Mattel has just announced a host of changes soon to come. Did you know that there has never been a Barbie produced capable of wearing flats? There will be now. If you don’t think that is a big deal, I vehemently disagree with you.
Amy Odell, Editor of Cosmopolitan.com, recently wrote a particularly enlightening piece on the dress code at the Cannes Film Festival, where women are actually reprimanded and denied entry for showing up in flats. How completely archaic when flats (and even sneakers!) have been featured by Chanel during NYFW. The significance of this issue lies in the history of high heels, which as Odell points out, have not been present in men’s fashion for over two centuries.
“Heels automatically put women in a position of subservience to men. That’s because heels change everything: They sexualize your whole being by altering your posture, forcing your butt out and your leg muscles to flex. Heels also dictate where you can and cannot walk, hinder your pace, and force you to be more careful with your every move.” – Amy Odell
They’re also medically detrimental, and yet women are conditioned to wear them as a prerequisite to feeling attractive. What of women who are physically unable to wear high heels? Do they deserve to be approached on a red carpet and made to feel like less of a woman because of footwear limitations?
Women should be free to represent themselves however they see fit, be that in a dress or pants, high heels or flats, wearing make-up or not wearing make-up. Caitlyn Jenner has given hope and inspiration to the transgender community this week, and perhaps she’s done even more than that by furthering an important conversation about how women are represented in this country. She should feel great on both accounts.”