Shelby Johnson’s body flashes across the TV screen, slim and clad in a black Calvin Klein bra and panties. A local news story about a viral tweet pushes its way into our living room.
This 23-year-old woman *gasp* sent her boyfriend of three months this photo of herself, and his response was incredibly disrespectful.
Instead of complimenting her beauty, he warned her she was developing a "beer gut." He went on to say, “The main issue is your gut might stick out more than mine, and that’s just weird.”
So she tweeted screenshots of the exchange with a question to her followers: was she overreacting for feeling hurt by his comment?
My gut reaction was a sad one. I wondered why this story was news when it happens every day, when men pick apart women's bodies like vultures while women do everything we can to please them. To be desirable. To be slim, sexy, cute, pretty, fuckable, soft, round where it counts, sharp where it's essential. We contort ourselves seeking simple approval. The fact that this woman had the confidence to expose herself so fully to this boy speaks volumes.
And he had the nerve to immediately disparage her weight? Johnson elaborated that she had struggled to gain weight all her life, weighing 90 lbs in 2014. She worked hard and has finally obtained a body she is proud of, yet one boy feels like he has the right to try to tear all that down in an instant?
Both of my parents felt that the guy was out of line in saying what he did. But they didn’t exactly express the same outrage I felt. In the same breath, my mom was wondering why the woman even sent the photos in the first place. Why did she put herself in that position?
This line of thinking makes sense when it’s all too common to hear stories about naked photos of young girls spreading around a school or community when placed in the hands of immature teenagers.
My dad believed it was okay for couples to comment on each other’s appearances. Your mom and I do it all the time, he says. Yeah, Dad, you guys comment on each other’s appearances, but always with a loving, teasing undertone, even when you’re a little harsh. It’s never rude, disparaging, or just plain mean.
Their reactions made me feel a bit alienated from them. I was simply, uncomplicatedly outraged at the man for making the comment, period.
Middle School Lessons
In middle and high school, I was aggressively trained not to send naked photos to boys. They don’t respect you. They just want to brag to their friends. You should assume this photo will be seen by everyone in school, because very often it might be, they said.
You should have more respect for yourself. Your body is a gift and you have to be selective with who you bestow it upon, they said.
While young girls are taught to safeguard themselves, young boys are taught that they could be severely disciplined for sending around naked photos of their female peers. Objectively good. But they aren’t taught nearly as much as they should be to respect women, that sending a photo of someone without their permission is a violation. We need to teach boys that even something they may believe is as simple as juvenile boasting, is a betrayal of trust, of security, of bodily autonomy.
Women, through our upbringings and life experiences, are socialized to distrust men. Parents always teach their daughters to be careful, to protect themselves, from dangers they may not even fully understand yet. Women are taught to be wary around men, to be suspicious, to be slow to bestow trust, because so often we are violated, betrayed, attacked, disrespected, or even insulted and torn down.
So I commend this woman for having the strength and the confidence to take a photo where she felt sexy and to share that with another person.
The Gifts I Choose To Give
I do believe my body is a gift. I also believe that I have the right to choose what I do with it, whenever and for whatever reason I like. Sending a photo of myself to a trusted person is me saying, “I’m thinking about you. Wish you were here. I miss you. I feel beautiful. I feel sexy.”
Maybe even “I want you.”
It’s a display of vulnerability, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
The first time I sent a photo of myself, it was to my boyfriend of a month. I was 19, and it was the first time he had ever seen me without clothes. I had never felt comfortable being naked with anyone before. I even refused to change in front of my female friends.
But this time was different. I wanted to show him the light bruises he had left on my upper thighs, the marks left behind by his touch. I turned my back to the mirror and held the camera over my shoulder. I was wearing a black bra and panties.
I felt sexy, beautiful, even a little mischievous. I felt confident and secure in how much he wanted me and respected me. I trusted him. And I wanted to share myself with him.
He didn’t ask. I did it willingly. And his reaction was worth it.
Keeping Things Interesting
Our relationship soon became long distance when I returned to school for the fall semester. Of course, incorporating a physical component can be difficult in a long distance relationship, so sending photos of myself at his request became a regular occurrence.
At first, I didn’t mind. It kept things fun and exciting. I liked the affirmations I received in response. The appreciation was a confidence boost. I knew he respected me and would never share the photos with anyone. Also, he was 24 and officially out of the toxic middle/high school cliquey pressure cooker. He didn’t need to share photos of naked girls with his bros to prove his masculinity and gain brownie points.
But then, things changed. Every time I said something along the lines of “be right back, going to take a quick shower,” he would ask for photos and act jokingly (?) disappointed if I lightly brushed off the request and declined to send them.
I found myself going to great lengths to take pictures of myself, often uncomfortable in a bathroom I shared with three other girls, scared someone would walk in and catch me in the act. What had previously made me feel sexy and confident now felt like something shameful, covert, wrong.
I felt like I was sending the photos just to please and appease him. It felt like an expectation, and a disappointment when I didn’t comply. I knew his intention wasn’t to pressure me, but that was the impact his actions had on me.
We’ve been broken up for a few months (he made it very clear that he has deleted any pictures of me), and seeing this news story brought all those feelings back.
Body Positivity, Male Fragility
I have so much love and respect for the body positivity movement, a movement that encourages confidence in women, promoting self-love and acceptance.
But sadly, it doesn’t seem like the rest of society has caught up with the movement yet. Women are still shamed for owning their sexuality and sending consensual photos of their bodies. Women are still mocked for physical “flaws” or imperfections.
The body positivity movement has made girls feel more comfortable with themselves and with sending photos of themselves, admiring their beauty and unique radiance. But I also believe that people often try to tear confident women down.
While women are evolving, men remain the same. Many men still feel entitled to critique and belittle the women in their lives. The simple act of having female relatives doesn’t make you a feminist, particularly not if you still treat them and romantic interests like garbage. Being a feminist means respecting a woman’s vulnerability and honoring the trust she has placed in you if and when she decides to send you a racy snap.
I’m angry. Really angry. I wish society would catch up with the incredible women embracing their bodies today. And I know that won’t happen if we allow ourselves to be intimidated out of newfound confidence.
So I’m not going to let one less-than-entirely-positive experience hinder me. I’m going to remember how empowered I felt sending that first photo. And I’m going to focus on that feeling, on that strength, on smiling the way I did in that first picture. Because I think self-love is the sexiest thing of all.
Author: Sienna Brancato
Sienna is a proud Italian American who grew up on Long Island (she has been told she has a bit of an accent). She is a sophomore at Georgetown studying English, Italian, and Government. Her passions include feminism, reading, spoken word poetry, and awkward dancing. Her favorite TV shows include The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Last Week Tonight. In her free time, you can catch her listening to the Civil Wars while eating an entire pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream and wearing fuzzy pajamas.