Travelling through Vietnam when I was eighteen, my partner and I spent a few days in a sleepy beachside town. At the close of another wonderful day, we were walking along the shore. The sun was sitting low, casting its warm rays onto our browning skin. The waves lapped, and I was feeling wholly content. As we stopped to rest on a sandy boulder, I removed my dress and bikini top, so that I could feel the breeze on my breasts. I don’t recall the words my partner used, but he was apparently deeply uncomfortable with this choice.
With only a spattering of people on the entire beach, my naked body was unlikely to have caused much of a stir, let alone offence. However, to him, my body was embarrassing and represented shame. “Do you have to be so… provocative?” is a question I’d heard multiple times. The truth of the matter is that I had no intention of bringing controversy to our otherwise pleasant evening. In that moment, my body was a nonsexual entity. Its nudity highlighted my humanness, and made me feel wholesome and ethereal. Its sexualisation was imposed upon me, rather than a choice I made by my own will, and I was made to blame for my partner’s chagrin.
Girls and women have been taught to feel shame regarding their naked bodies since the beginning of time. We have been taught that exposing ourselves is dishonourable, unladylike, and dangerous. When we disagree, we are met with a bellow: ‘What decent man wants a woman who gets her tits out at every opportunity?’. It’s not just our breasts either - exposed shoulders and knees are sexualised as evidenced in the dress codes of thousands of high schools across the United States. In many cases, girls are sent home or made to wear “shame suits” as punishment for wearing clothing deemed “distracting” by restrictive dress codes.
A project that deeply moved me was Caitlin Stasey’s 'Herself' project. Women from around the world were photographed nude, in a way I had seldom encountered prior. The male gaze, so common in our media’s representation of women, was entirely removed. These women were not being sexy, nor performing for a male audience, and it was astonishingly refreshing. Showcasing their imperfect bodies, they were humans and not sexual objects. The accompanying interviews discussed their womanhood, development, and personal experiences. They were given a platform to talk about their own bodies, sexual needs, and feelings, without being told how they should or should not be.
I am deeply grateful to my mother, who never scolded me for wearing too ‘sexy’ an outfit during my teenage years. I left the house to attend underage discos in blouses too low and skirts too short by many people’s standards, which she never enforced upon me . I was testing how it felt to be on display - a self objectification I later identified and grew out of.
It is not to say that I no longer wear revealing clothes, for I do, but when I choose to expose parts of my body, it is not an invitation to their sexualisation. When I bare my strong limbs, I do so because I am proud of them, as they represent the time I have dedicated to their form. When I show my clavicles or slight cleavage, I do so to feel elegant and feminine. I have even been known to expose my bare breasts to friends on nights out, as its my party trick. My pierced nipple invokes shock, holds comedic value, and allows us to bond over silly things we each have done.
My body parts of course can be sexual - but their sexualisation is unfairly assumed by many to be inherent to their form. Exposing my breasts does not feel sexual, and I do not see them as sexual entities.
To me, they are just another part of my body. Women's bodies are astounding in so many ways. They are strong, diverse, and multifaceted. Germaine Greer argues that when we treat female bodies as aesthetic objects without function, we “deform” them and their owners. I believe that the sexualisation of women’s bodies without their consent is unjust and dehumanising, and it must stop. It is the choice of each woman when and how her body is sexual, and just as importantly, when it is not.
By Ruby Ford