Model & Actress Emily Ratajkowski On Why Shaming Women For Their Sexuality Has To Stop

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In case you hadn’t noticed, women’s sexuality is still a controversial topic in 2016. All over the world there are movements, ideologies and organizations which are designed (whether on purpose or not) shame women for choosing to express and control their own bodies and their own sexuality without the consent of another party.

It’s something that perhaps will never stop being controversial as long as there is heavy religious influence in our politics, media, schools and homes. Here’s the deal, we respect the right for every woman (and man) to express themselves and be in charge of their sexuality as they see fit. Since there are literally billions of us in the world, how can one thought process be the “right way” for us all?

The idea of shaming women for how they dress (we KNOW you’ve seen the numerous stories about girls in high schools being reprimanded for their outfits) in a way that men are not, the notion of telling women it is their fault for being raped, harassed or cat-called because of what clothes they wear and what they look like, and the practice of teaching girls that their bodies are not to be celebrated from a young age is so incredibly damaging and leaves no room for healthy discussion or evolution.

One young woman who knows about this all too well is model and actress Emily Ratajkowski. Yes, the ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Gone Girl’ star, who burst onto the entertainment scene and became an instant household name due to her nude displays. Her choices have certainly created divided reactions among fans, and while it is so easy for us all to make snap judgements about her from the outside, Emily isn’t about to let someone other than her direct her own narrative.

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In a new essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter titled ‘Baby Woman’ Emily candidly shares some of the ways she was shamed growing up because of her body. The title comes from the nickname her dad gave her growing up, because at the age of 12, she had D-cup sized breasts but would also still ask her mom to sleep in her bed with her when she got scared during the night. She then goes on to explain some of the ways she would subtly be humiliated for her growing body.

“In eighth grade, a vice principal snapped my bra strap in front of an entire room of my classmates and other teachers. She did it because the strap was falling out from my tank top and that broke the school’s dress code. When I was 13, a close family member came to see my performance in a play. I remember feeling pretty — tanned, wearing lip gloss and a red button-up ribbed top over my bra and a mod-style zip-up miniskirt from Forever 21. Our family member sobbed to my mother and me at dinner after; she was worried for me, worried about the looks I got from men, because I was wearing what I was wearing. I needed to protect myself, she explained.”

“The same year, my parents hosted a dinner party where I spoke freely, keeping up with the mature humor and storytelling, an only child comfortable sharing my conversation with adults. On my way to the bathroom, before dessert, an older family friend took me aside, separate from the rest of the party: ‘You need to hide out, a girl like you, keep a low profile.’ Whatever that meant. I truly believe he felt he was being protective, helpful even.”

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“When I was 15, the adults in my life were concerned by my modeling at such a young age. They’d heard the horror stories of creepy middle-aged men taking advantage of young women, or agents pressuring girls to lose weight. Surprisingly enough, dealing with the world outside the industry was the toughest part of my adolescence and young adulthood. Teachers, friends, adults, boyfriends — individuals who were not as regulated as those in the highly scrutinized fashion world were more often the ones to make me feel uncomfortable or guilty about my developing sexuality. I was modeling only occasionally at that time, but I found the same people who faulted the modeling industry for being oppressive and sexist were frequently missing entirely their own missteps and faux pas. Their comments felt much more personal and thus landed that much harder.”

Because of this constant focus on her body, even to this day she looks at herself thinking she needs to be aware not to “send the wrong message”. But now that she has been under intense scrutiny both growing up and in the media, she now has a much more empowered view of how sexuality should be approached instead.

“The implication is that to be sexual is to be trashy because being sexy means playing into men’s desires. To me, “sexy” is a kind of beauty, a kind of self-expression, one that is to be celebrated, one that is wonderfully female. Why does the implication have to be that sex is a thing men get to take from women and women give up? Most adolescent women are introduced to “sexy” women through porn or Photoshopped images of celebrities. Is that the only example of a sexual woman we will provide to the young women of our culture? Where can girls look to see women who find empowerment in deciding when and how to be or feel sexual? Even if being sexualized by society’s gaze is demeaning, there must be a space where women can still be sexual when they choose to be.”

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During her time studying at UCLA, Emily says she drew a charcoal nude for her drawing class and explained to her teacher that she wanted to present an empowered view of a woman’s body, where every aspect is celebrated. Her teacher did not like her thinking outside the box, and Emily remembers him essentially telling her to either play into the beauty stereotypes that exist or show how oppressive they are.

This exchange stuck with her because it exemplified just how uncomfortable society is with allowing women to dictate their bodies and their sexuality on their own terms. But now that she is in a position to make her own decisions, Emily continues to model and isn’t afraid of nudity. Some may look at it as objectification, but if you look a little closer it is part of a much bigger social discussion happening around the restrictions put on women’s bodies. The Free The Nipple movement, Shout Your Abortion, discussions to further consent, and the organizations pointing out the dangerous mindset behind street harassment (where men feel entitled to comment on a woman’s body and feel as if they are owed a certain type of reaction because they have been taught women’s bodies are for their pleasure, not their own autonomy) are what we need to see more of in society.

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Just last week, President Obama signed a new budget for 2017 which cut out all federal funding for Abstinence Only programs in schools around the country. Why does this matter? Because America is still steeped in puritanical roots which dictate that shaming a young person for having sex, rather than arming them with the right information, is the way to go. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that states which currently teach Abstinence Only have the highest rates of teen pregnancies.

Sadly, only 22 states require schools to teach comprehensive sex education, and only 18 of those require the information to be medically accurate. Now think about the impact of this hideously archaic ideology on a generation of kids who don’t have the privilege of asking questions about sex and their bodies and you can start to understand why women such as Emily Ratajkowski owning her own sexuality and speaking about her shaming experiences growing up is important.

Why are we still so afraid of a woman boldly owning her own sexuality and making decisions for herself? If “consequences” is the answer, then we should never leave our houses. There are consequences to literally every decision we make, and the more we oppress young women and men for trying to understand and navigate their sexuality the less informed and compassionate we become.

“I struggle to find the space between as an artist, as a model, and simply as a woman — a space where I can have ownership and enjoyment of my gender. Honoring our sexuality as women is a messy, messy business, but if we don’t try, what do we become? I refuse to live in this world of shame and silent apologies. Life cannot be dictated by the perceptions of others, and I wish the world had made it clear to me that people’s reactions to my sexuality were not my problems, they were theirs,” she concludes in the Lenny Letter.

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