Have you seen this commercial?
Does it make you as uncomfortable to watch as it makes me? It makes me feel a little nauseous, angry, disappointed, and even a bit embarrassed.
This is 19 year old Kate Upton, 2012 Sports Illustrated Cover Model. While 19 is, by all intents and purposes, considered an “adult” in most US states – I still find it hard to believe that someone this young is so well versed in seduction. I’m 15 years older than this chick, and much to my husband’s dismay, don’t even come close to exuding this much sex appeal. I suppose, however, that there’s a difference between sexy and sex appeal – and for the latter, our society seems to have no boundaries, limits or appropriate standards.
Every so often, I will pass a woman in the bread aisle at Safeway, or catch a glimpse of a woman playing with her child at the park, or see a woman walk into a restaurant, and I think “Wow, she’s a sexy woman.” When I have this thought, what I am actually noticing is her confidence. I am noticing her tall posture, her assured gait, the way she makes eye contact with everyone in her path, and the way her smile is authentic and lasting. Without exception, these sexy women are older – experienced, wiser, with stories to tell of a life well lived. They define sexiness from a place deep within – a destination that took them a while to navigate toward. These women are fearless, because they know who they are.
My husband puts me in this category, and I am so thankful to him for that. With each of my pregnancies, he falls more deeply in awe of my capabilities as a woman. As I became a wife, and a mother, I became more sure of who I was because the roles that I slipped into were the roles that I was created for. With my increasing age and life experience came confidence – and that confidence is what my husband now describes as sexy. He looks beyond the extra weight, the stretch marks, the loose skin on my belly – and he sees a woman who wears her own skin with pride.
How many of us knew who we were at 19 years old? By the standards that I just described above, we couldn’t possibly have been sexy at that age. Instead, we had what’s called sex appeal – which is the ability to excite people sexually. Sure, at 19, while flaunting too much skin – we were exciting boys both younger and older than ourselves. Boys, and men, who were seeing us as objects – not well seasoned women with those stories to tell of a life well lived. This is the very thing that disturbs me so much. Why are we allowing 19 year old girls to climax over eating jalapenos for the arousal of her audience? At the risk of sounding totally brash, I wonder if Kate’s dad is blushing in a corner somewhere while his buddies are trying hard not to drool over their big-screen TV’s?
Now, it’s no secret that I’ve battled plenty of demons when it comes to my own self esteem. I spent countless years as a pre-teen, teenager and young adult wishing to look like Kate – if even remotely. I can actually remember thinking “Someday, someone will want me for my body.” I wanted to have sex appeal. I aspired to look sickly thin (though, genetically, could never achieve it) and wanted to be noticed for my body – not my brains nor, God forbid, my heart. I was sick of being the nice girl, the girl who was like every guy’s sister. Despite the heartburn, had this commercial aired when I was 19, I may very well have eaten a jalapeno burger every darn day in hopes of breaking into a sex-glistening sweat. I was so impressionable, and I longed to be noticed for all the wrong reasons.
Things are different today. I’m a mom of a 2 1/2 year old girl. With another daughter due in less than three weeks. I wish I could apologize for sounding like a total prude, and for being a little hard on Ms. Upton’s agents (and her own, “adult,” judgement) – but I can’t. Not when I am trying my hardest to raise strong and confident women in a society that values such objectification of females. There’s a difference between celebrating both the femininity and strength of women, and exploiting them for their assets. But, it’s everywhere…images of young girls, staged with sex appeal, selling goods to consumers, is everywhere. And our responsibility as parents has just been bumped up to Threat Level, Red.
Let me be clear here – I don’t consider myself a feminist in any way. I’m not burning my bra, marching for women’s rights, or even demanding that I be paid for my job as a stay-at-home mom….where the work is unparalleled and the glass ceiling has no cap. What I am doing is beginning to fight for my girls’ place in this world – free from the pressures of push-up bras and g-string panties in pre-teen sizes. This fight started within myself, the day DJ was born. I had to make a conscious effort to stop putting myself down. I had to decide, that day, to only speak highly of myself in the company of my daughter. I had to erase the look of dismay off my face when peering into the mirror. I had to eliminate the words “fat,” and “diet,” and temper the use of “I wish,” and “if only.” I had to start believing my husband when he said I was sexy, and I had to abandon the misdirected desire to have sex appeal. I had to commit to being an example of a confident woman in my daughter’s eyes – despite my weight, my height, the texture of my hair, the surface of my skin, the reach of my hips or the outdated clothes in my closet. Just as I am. Beautiful.
And then, something started happening. I started noticing that no matter what messages I was sending my daughter – there was a whole big world out there sending her contrasting ones. There are scantily clad women selling beer, cars, burritos, soft drinks, shaving cream, and even butter. Worse yet, there are fragments of these women selling such products. We see boobs, tummies, legs, butts – and no faces. My daughter, bless her heart, always says “I can’t see her eyes.” How poignant. You’re right, sweet DJ, we can’t see her eyes – nor can anyone else. And sadly, that’s not what consumers want to see these days. (I’ve recently come across some videos on You Tube titled “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women.” These videos strive to point out, and confront, the media and advertisers for their portrayal of women in ads. It’s startling to see the evolution of women’s placement in selling products).
So, how do we fix it? I have no idea. All I can do is commit to teaching, and teaching, and teaching my daughters about what is important and valuable in this life. All I can do is vow to show my daughters the other side of this coin. That for every “hot” girl selling fast food, there is an Amelia Earhart. All I can do is teach my daughters about legacy, what will be remembered from their lifetime, and encourage them to leave an impact far greater than earning a few bucks for a burger chain. Ultimately, they will battle peer pressure, and they will battle with their own identities. That’s an inevitable rite of passage while growing up. My hope, however, is that between me and their daddy, we will have built a foundation strong enough to endure such young hardship that their suffering will be minimal, and their rise above such issues will be fast and furious. And maybe, just maybe, with enough parents daring to talk with their children about inappropriate images and human misrepresentation – we just might make some progress.
I admire people like Cindy Crawford, who has made a name for herself in modeling. She has a 10 year old daughter, who designers have already begun targeting. Ms. Crawford has taken a stand and will not allow her daughter to model until she’s 17. She gives the following explanation, “…I also think when I was modeling, size 6 was a normal size and now it’s like 2 or 0. Being a woman and having a daughter, I don’t want her to feel like in order to be attractive or healthy or thin, that you have to deprive yourself all of the time.” I guess one could argue that indulging in a jalapeno burger is hardly deprivation – but you get my point.
Anyhow, I have a huge and ongoing fight ahead – as we all do. Our daughters, and our sons, need to know that there’s more to life than pretty people. And while we should never undervalue the importance of exercise, the importance of eating healthily, or of taking pride in our appearance (nor should we ever feel the need to apologize for physical features that others might be envious of), we absolutely must detour our children from ever wanting to be recognized for their bodies. Or, more importantly, thinking that’s the only way they can be recognized.
So Kate, it’s not that I blame you. You’ve been told that your body is hot, and it is. But, I bet you’re really smart, too. It’s just that 14 year old boys (and I shudder to think of the actual male audience over 14 years of age who are salivating for Kate’s spicy sesame bun) all over the country are now more interested in your breasts than your thoughts – and that’s because you let the media sell you out. I want more for my daughters. So much more.