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Mar 13, 2012

"Sexy" Style -- Empowering or Degrading?



Readers, I want to discuss a topic that we probably won't resolve today.

It's the subject of women (primarily, though not exclusively) being pressured to present themselves as "sexy."  I'm not referring to bias-cut satin evening gowns on the red carpet or the cliched So-and-So Celebrity Reveals All come-on headline on the cover of Glamour.  I'm talking about the relentless marketing of styles and attitudes derived from porn and prostitution.  An adjective one often hears to describe this contemporary fashion/cultural phenomenon is "trashy," and to paraphrase former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (in reference to pornography), we know it when we see it.

I often read contemporary fashion and style blogs that opine that feminism is about women getting to choose how they want to present themselves.  If they want to wear clothes that reveal a lot of flesh, that's their business and nobody else's.  If pole dancing and pin-up poses are back, it's because they're fun -- a sign of liberation.

Friends, I'm not anti-porn.  I would like to see prostitution legalized and unionized.  But I'm also aware -- now more than ever given the latest Rush Limbaugh/Rick Santorum anti-contraception brouhaha -- that we live in a very divided country (and world) and what feels like consensus in the Manhattan-based print media does not accurately reflect attitudes in Mississippi or Kansas.

This morning I was glancing through two issues of Cosmopolitan I happen to have in my possession.  One is from 1991, the other from 2012.





I've always considered Cosmo a little sex-obsessed, judging from the issues I've glanced at in the dentist's office over the years, but it wasn't until I compared these two issues side by side that I realized just how much more sex-obsessed it has become.  Cosmo presents itself as a raunchy female empowerment guide while displaying attitudes about sexual politics straight out of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  Articles and captions like "The Walk That Drives Men Wild, "How to Outsmart the Office Bitch," and "She Hooked a Cosmo Bachelor" abound.  Tongue in cheek?  Perhaps.





It's all about being "hot," "sexy" (sexy being the most overused adjective here), and "badass."  A What's Sexy Now feature maintains that "radiating composed self-assurance will always make you the hottest babe around." (my emphasis).

You've come a long way, baby?





It's not just the emphasis on sex, it's the smutty language, by which I mean, very specifically, words traditionally used to shame women, that calls my attention.  What else can we make of the constant use of "naughty" (Naughty to whom?), "dirty," "shocking,"  two-timing" (to describe garments you can wear casual or "glam") and "skanky"?

Is this an example of using the language of the oppressor to empower an oppressed group, the way the gay community re-appropriated, and (arguably) defused, the word "queer" in the Nineteen-nineties?  Is it meant to be ironic and playfully retrograde, or is something else going on?







I wonder if this is how young women are receiving these messages, I don't know; I'm not young and I'm not a woman.  But many of you are, so I look to you -- mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, and lovers.

The letter from the Editor-in-Chief, Kate White, is entitled "Fun Fearless Females" but further on we find "Deadly Decisions: How Smart Women Put Themselves at Risk" about women being abducted and murdered.  It's like those womens magazines that offer brownie recipes on one page while telling you how to shed those last ten pounds on another.   Flirt fearlessly but beware the serial rapist on Craigslist!



In contrast, the Cosmo from 1991 is tame beyond belief, with articles like "Buttons Make the Difference," "Thirteen Healthy Healing Veggies," and "The Ideal Man: Is He Out There?"  





The words one sees most often in 1991 are "love" (Like the Lingerie for Love fashion spread; or Kids Talk About Love article), "romance" and "beauty."  The Why Don't You....  feature includes the (scandalous) suggestion "Kiss a man who isn't your beau," "Sing to him while you're slow dancing" and "Freeze your favorite candy bar -- delicious and long-lasting!"

In contrast, in 2012, you're encouraged to "turn your feet into total teases with peekaboo heels."

The empowerment I see in 2012 Cosmo is all surface sizzle -- the power to flirt, tease, taunt, and flaunt.  Are we so post-feminist that we don't have to encourage women to focus on anything other than being hot in (and out of) bed?

Sexual power is real and there's nothing wrong with having it in our arsenal and using it.  It's fun, especially when we're young.  But women -- and I stress women because they're the ones who are encouraged to endlessly flaunt their sexuality in magazines like Cosmo -- have other powers they should be encouraged to develop.  Yes or no?

You can see more pics from these two issues of Cosmopolitan here.

Readers, what do you make of our culture's contemporary focus on "sexy" style, as depicted in Cosmo and elsewhere (everywhere)?   Do you consider it empowering, degrading, or something in-between?  What happened over the last twenty years to get us to this point?

Jump in!

86 comments:

  1. I love this. I'm honestly not entirely sure what to think, being young and a woman. Some days I feel like it is completely degrading, and on others, I feel like it is a sort of desparate plea from the magazine- "I am relevant, you need me!" On those days, I just feel sorry for the people who work in that industry, and for those who can't see past those glossy sheets. I don't dig how the current marketing is basically saying you are not beautiful or sexy ENOUGH, but these heels will get you closer. But I'm not sure that aspect of marketing to women (or anyone) has ever been very different. We have always been encouraged to disguise our "flaws."

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  2. As a mother I would be horrified at my young daughter getting hold of Cosmo right now. I need a few years at least before I have to start explaining stuff! I used to read Cosmo as a teen. I liked it, if I remember rightly. I wanted to be hot but I still saw right through the Cosmo version of hot. I still do and thankfully so does my fiance! I think it is what it is and probably good that it makes no bones about its brazen articles. At least we know where we stand and it says what it says on the tin! Personally I dont find it degrading or empowering. I haven't read a copy in years but perhaps with a little time on my hands I might flick the pages to see if it could teach me anything new... but I very much doubt it could! Having said that. I do like a sexy shoe!!!!

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  3. Peter, you are amazingly insightful. I am 46 and old enough to look at women in their 20's in towering cagelike shoes as shown above, in dresses made from two hankies and a bit of cheap chain, slap all over their faces, tanned like they've been rolling around in gravy browning and that big hair that falls over one shoulder and the word that flashes in my mind is CHEAP. Cheap to rent too, if you know what I'm saying. Is it a fashoin fad, to which the young are far more susceptible than we are (except Cathy and her love hate attraction to the peplum!)
    I suspect that the trouble is, that women are hard wired to want to attract a partner in certain ways, and these days teh messages are so confused, the young are reverting to this lizard brain thinking. Without a clear value proposition and any sense of modesty no longer inate in much of our western culture, it's game one. I hope that "game over" isn't heralded in by some dreadful backlash, but that's generally how things work :(

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  4. Interesting that you bring up this subject, Peter. Just yesterday, Raquel Welch went public saying that everything today is about sex and porn, no mystery, no romance.
    How true!

    On a personal note, I wish women would stop acting like victims every time they are called derrogatory names. Is it rude? Yes. Is it mean-spirited? Sure.

    But, haven't women come far enough to brush off small thinking? Victims can't be equals and as long as women act like victims and allow society to victimize them with name-calling, they will never be treated as equals.

    I always liked Madonna's approach. She was called every name in the book. Instead of acting like a victim, she took ownership of the names and said "yes, I'm a woman and I like sex. Deal with it!" And she moved on.

    In my opinion, it made her all the more strong and significant.

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  5. As a woman who has struggled through the years of women's lib and getting women to be seen as equals in the workplace, these type of magazines frustrate me. They send the not so subtle message that a woman is whole without a man and while I like men, I like to be whole all by myself. Maybe these types of images make some continued contribution as to why women are still paid less than men.

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  6. I am hoping that D is correct, and that Cosmo's switch from romance to porn represents a desperate attempt to stay in business after the internet has taken most of their customer base.

    I never bought or read Cosmo. If you want to sell me a magazine purely on impulse, try putting quilts, recipes, or a good looking man on the cover.

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  7. My take? If you're reading it in Cosmo, it's probably not empowering. Cosmo is Barbie-colored, faux feminism. Frankly, I've always suspected that the more a magazine crows about being feminist, the more it divides women from men rather than than narrows the gap. We all know how well "separate but equal" worked the first time, right?

    You want to see empowered women? Read "Horse & Rider". They do everything the men do, take their lumps just like the men do, and nobody seems surprised that they can do it. Yes, there are mentions of "first woman such-and-such" but, mostly, nobody bats an eye at a 110-pound woman in control of an 1,100-pound cow horse. They don't have to flash cleavage to get attention and the shoes are both comfortable and stylish (I'm from Texas: Boots go with everything).

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  8. I have no problem with women showing any amount of skin or teetering precariously atop any horrible shoes--as long as they are actually enjoying themselves. Some women do, and more power to them. What I do have a problem with is women doing things to themselves that are uncomfortable for them or even harmful, because they feel they must. We exist in a culture that sells women things by telling us we aren't thin enough, tall enough, tan enough, sexy enough, good enough--but we could be, for the low cost of [insert seriously impractical product here]. The pressure to conform to some exaggerated idea of femininity is enormous, and it's that pressure I have a problem with, not the women who give in to it. Cosmo feeds right into it--throw that magazine out the window and never look at it again. Just flipping through it gives me a massive self-esteem crisis.

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  9. Cosmo is social whiplash...'How to get ahead'/ 'Can I sleep with him, he's my boss' articles constantley sending bizarre messages about what sort of power women should exert...so glad I skipped reproducing!

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    1. I am a professor at a top-tier university, with a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance literature. I often teach women's studies courses; I'm well-published in my field. I also enjoy sewing my own clothes from vintage patterns. Oh, and I'm a breeder with two wonderful little kids. "Reproducing" does not automatically ensure that you have subjugated yourself to the imbalanced sexual power hierarchy. What helps reproduce that hierarchy is the small-mindedness that divides women from each other: when we, for example, judge others for their choices about whether or not to get married and/or have kids, to work or stay at home, etc.

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    2. Interesting...I'd read the original comment to mean that she was happy not to have to deal with ushering kids through all the mixed messages about women and power. I totally agree with all you've said, Anon Mar 18 -- and I wonder if prttynpnk does, too.

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  10. Amen to that, Little Black Car. You know what's been empowering to me as a young woman working in the IT world? Walking into a meeting as the only female among men with 30+ years of experience, telling them what's wrong with a system, explaining how to fix it, and having them believe me. You know why that's empowering? Because my mother and her mother and many before worked hard to get me into that meeting. To get those men to see past the "young female" and rather see a hard worker who deserves respect.

    I'm not going to throw away real confidence, real self esteem, real empowerment for some two-bit magazine that wants to exploit my insecurities just to make money. Even in my partying college days, I had to stop reading Cosmo because it was too much. It disgusted me how much they hated women while declaring how great women were (of course only if said women were wearing fake hair, fake nails, lots of makeup, trendy clothes that don't fit correctly, and shoes that are just short of torture devices).

    My mom laments where "sexual empowerment" has gone. Back in "her day" it meant something. It meant equality and the ability to be your own person. Today, sexual empowerment is a phrase used to to justify insecure girls (because we don't use the term "women" anymore) trying to feel complete by snagging a man... any man... as long as he's breathing.

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    1. Hurray, Sophia!

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    2. Oh I absolutely agree with your definition of empowering. And I am a professional woman who can remember a time when my opinion would not be heard at a meeting because of my gender. Good on you that you get it, know where it came from and value it.

      Porn devalues women and turns them into objects. It disturbs me to see more and more hooker style going mainstream.

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  11. Sexy is a glint in the eye. It has nothing to do with cage-ike shoes. But that sentiment would not sell magazines would it?

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    1. Only if you could package and market glints.

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  12. I have a 3-year-old and I worry every day that by the time she goes to prom, the girls will be wearing pasties and peekaboo underpants on the dance floor. What I find strange is that the trend toward the pornification of fashion and pop culture has been so sustained over the last 15 years. I thought porn was exciting because it's mostly underwraps; you have to seek it out, and enjoy it in doses. Let the backlash begin already!

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  13. Yep, the scene is pretty much the same here in Australia. Much as I find the pornification of mainstream magazines depressing, what I find really depressing is that if anyone dares to publicly question whether this stuff is good for the psychological health of young women and young men, she get shouted down as a prude, some sort of nutcase, or worse. There is a woman here called Melinda Tankard Reist who runs a lobby group called Collective Shout. She focuses on the effect of this stuff in advertising and the media on young people, but I fear she gets a lot of #$$7 heaped on her for her trouble. As a mother of a twelve year old daughter who is going to have to navigate this stuff, though, I can't help but cheer her on.

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  14. This photo sums it up: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lwsp3sHx7i1qazntwo1_500.png.

    Sometimes I flip through men's magazines out of curiosity, and they really aren't that much better. They have the same tone ("You suck! But the potential is there so we'll tell you how to fix it using commercial products and the following list of poorly-researched misinformation!") and similar themes about attracting sex partners with clothes, hygiene and attitude - and pleasing your partner in bed. I admit that as a young teen I learned a lot about sex from Cosmo (oh the horror!). While, yes, some of it is raunchy, they DO slip in messages about safe sex, potential consequences, the importance of communication and trust, setting your boundaries, and so on. Their presentation of those things is AWFUL, though, and they do throw in a lot of crap to buffer it. Now I obviously know where to access better health resources, and I ignore Cosmo on the shelves and laugh at it when I do encounter it. I think that while it can affirm women's ability to make decisions about our own sex lives, at the same time it's telling us exactly what to decide. Hey, it's the mass media business model.

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    1. Oh, that magazine cover made me laugh, Andrea!

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  15. I have to say I have never been a regular reader of women's mags I find them so irrelevant to how I think. I've never been a fashion fan either, so what with pull the man of your dreams, wear sexy shoes or get the latest style I just don't bother reading. It does seem there is a gap in the market for women who love style not fashion and have minds of their own.I have to say that were I less sure of my own mind I'm not sure what effect these magazines would have had on my young mind!

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  16. Cosmo hasn't held any appeal for ages. I'll flip through it at the doctors office if I forget my book, but every time I'm disappointed. The things they coin as hot or naughty just seem... lame. There are better books out there if you want to read about sex, there are better fashion magazines if you want to read about fashion. I think a lot of the headlines are about desperation. Critical thinking skills in young women will cut through the crap for what it is.

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    1. I guess that's the question: will they?

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  17. So much of what's pushed on women these days is made or conjured up by men! I've always believed that when something is left to the imagination it is much more interesting than the blatant, in your face trashiness that exists today.

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  18. Thanks for raising this subject, Peter. I think it is an important one. Thanks also to Paola for mentioning Collective Shout. I've added them on Facebook.
    Amanda

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  19. Another fellow Aussie:

    I cannot remember when I last read let alone bought cosmo magazine. I recognised the drivel at a very young age and chose to read the more intellectual magazines (sarcasm intended) like Marie Claire. I've been called sexy and during those times I was not in shoes I couldn't walk in. I have issues with the general obsession with sex, stupidity and infantalism. But that is for another day...

    Melissa

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  20. I can see the fun of dressing sort of slutty on Saturday night and I think that Cosmo has sort of become a soft porn magazine for women. What I object to is that the magazine doesn't make it sound like a fun empowering thing to do in your own style. Cosmo pushes an idea of sexuality that few can measure up to, makes it seem like the norm, and suggests that we probably aren't hot enough to catch anyone. It all feeds insecurity, until women are so anxious they feel they have to act slutty to catch the last single man on earth.

    And anxiety sells adds. Make women worry about how fat and ugly they are and you can sell a myriad of beauty products; make us anxious about our ability to attract men and you can sell a bunch of adds for sexy products. Magazines are no longer about inspiration or escapism, they create feelings of inadequacy and lack so that we want to buy things to fill up the void.

    Bring on the sewing blogs!

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  21. IMHO, I feel that the media here is objectifying women.I see it as a form of opression. I used to read cosmo and the likes when I was in my teens and early twenties and my self esteem was crap. It took me a long time to get over it and learn what my own worth is. I really don't like the idea that I will be raising my future children in this type of environment. And the most ironic thing in all of this is that as a muslim convert, I choose to wear the headscarf and to keep my sexuality for my husband. Somehow people see me and think that I'm oppressed... I don't get it

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  22. So my 19 year old daughter is home on spring break from NAU. I asked her to read the blog and tell me what she thought. Her reply was that "It's just the media, so I don't take it seriously. I know most of those things are not appropriate." She like Peter's comments and thought he brought up some very valid points.

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  23. I think Cosmo is getting desperate as their vision of emancipated womanhood & definition of sexiness is not shared by a lot of young women - I am the mother of two of them 24 & 22 and one thing refreshing about their viewpoint is that they aren't so desperate to be involve d in this as young as we were in the early 1970's and that they don't share the old notion that without a boyfriend you are a nothing that we had back then.
    So I think Cosmo's push to be more & more sexy oriented is in contrast to the way more and more young women think which is to not define themselves by their love lives.
    I love the high heels but even as a young woman they were very uncomfortable to wear. The rest of it I think they are just pushing and hoping someone will buy it somewhere. Among other things young women who do most of the two timing etc have been reared to be HIV conscious etc so they are less likely to be two timing in the first place.

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  24. You've just highlighted why, exactly, I stopped reading women's mags a decade ago when I outgrew Seventeen. (Even then, I was in it for the fiction!)

    I'm uncomfortable showing lots of skin. It's not how I was raised--I was raised to be a lady, not a hooker. To be frank, covered up can be sexier than revealing if you do it right. Heck, Stacey London and Clinton Kelley have practically built careers on that fact with What Not To Wear. And the high heels you pictured? Well, they look like overpriced torture devices to me. I'm 6'0. I don't usually wear high heels because I don't need them, and I'm clumsy enough in flats and pumps!

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    1. Agree on the shoes - my feet hurt just looking at the overly high spindly stilettos!

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  25. um, that should be "over a decade ago". ;) got too old for Seventeen in the 90s!

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  26. AS I've gotten older, I realize that my version of sexy has changed from "look what I have" to "guess what's in there." ha ha

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  27. I think it has a lot to do with the internet and the ready, instant availability of pornography. It seems to have a "trickle through" effect on the rest of society and I'm not sure it's a good thing.

    I mean... How else do we explain the sudden (past tennish years) rage for Brazilians, for example? Worse, if you're a young woman and you don't go for it, you'll likely find yourself gently or not-so-gently pressured into it...

    It's pervasive, this pornographication...

    And whoever thought up the whole "It's my body, I'm liberated, I can do what I want with it" philosophy had to have been some kind of Don Draper clone. Lines fed to hot young feminists who preached it and passed it on to their daughters.

    I get to be a very cranky old lady about this subject sometimes... I think it's a shame. Should we all dress like Puritans? Definitely not. How silly. But the current state of things is beyond offensive to me.

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  28. Well, back in the day (that would be 1970s, not 1870s!) when I was a young lass I would sneak-read Cosmo once in awhile. (My mother tossed it out if she found it lying around.) This was when Helen Gurley Brown was still writing and editing the magazine. Even then, it had a weirdly retro vibe--like from the 1950s/early 1960s. Be a lady in public, but behind the scenes use sex anyway you can to get what you want sort of message. Looking at a few recent issues, seems to be offering the same kind of thing couched in today's vocabulary. Still seems weirdly dated to me but I guess that sells the ads.

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  29. Great topic, Peter. My son, Gabriel, 27, was talking to me about reading Cosmo in the laundromat. He complains a lot about trashiness. I am 62, and adore style. My idea of mags are 5 cent wonders from charity shops. To-day Hubster found 2 Vogues (knitting) from the 80's. LOVELY. One reason I love vintage patterns and fabrics is I prefer a more modest look. Even though older, if I get regular exercise, and keep my mind focused, I can keep on having style. Cathie, in Quebec.

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  30. In my opinion, this sexification of every aspect of our lives isn't having the effect Cosmo would like us to think it it. I agree with Steph C on the 'it's my body, I'm liberated' sham. I saw a recent TV doco in which young women were having their labia surgically trimmed because their boyfriends were pressuring them to look like the women they saw in magazines. In my opinion, women are becoming more trapped/oppressed without even realising it.

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  31. Honestly, I think this might not be the right group of women to ask. It seems time and time again that most of the women who post here, are insightful, intelligent, self-assured and ask thought-provoking questions.
    Maybe Cosmo caters to a different demographic.

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    1. like the "Jersey Shore" crowd? yep...

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  32. Like Carol and others have said "women are becoming more trapped/oppressed without even realising it" and it's alarming! I always had feminist leanings in response to a very traditional mother with views of how i should me more lady like to catch me a rich man etc. My role as a mother of two young women (19 and 22) has been driven by a desire for them to be strong, competent and independent women with a strong sense of self so that they would question when society, oft driven by men, told them they had to show more skin, or look/behave a certain way to be relevant. My daughters' brains were celebrated in our family and their appearance was pretty much ignored. It angers me no end that young women are being conned; sexy is just the 21st Century version of my mother's oppression of 'looking pretty' to please and get/keep a man except now it means buying more product/services to a achieve it.

    As mothers and fathers we have the power to raise our sons and daughters to question and resist being unknowingly oppressed, but it means developing their brains rather than developing their make-up application ability, so to speak.

    Additionally Peter, i've noticed how much the media attributes 'sexy' to food; which really irks me no end. When i hear a celebrity chef tout that a dish or ingredient is sexy i start to tune out.

    Excellent topic Peter; as usual, so very relevant.

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  33. Peter, I’m so glad you opened the floodgates. The other comments have said it all. I can only agree with all of your readers.

    On the one hand, I think there’s a lot of desperation involved here – the desperation of a magazine to sell ads, so it creates a sense of desperation in young women (us older ladies don’t fall for this crap anymore) and that desperation keeps feeding on itself. The more desperate the magazine publishers become, the more they want to make women feel desperate. The more desperate women become, the more they think they need stupid magazines like this to tell them what to do.

    The print media have taken a beating because of the internet and Cosmo is no exception. They are desperate to sell ads and ad sales are based on getting the coveted “demographic” that spends money. So they keep pushing the envelope. I used to work for a magazine publisher (nothing glamorous, sadly) and articles and features were planned to pull in the advertisers. The readers were the last thing the editors/publishers were thinking about.

    I’m in my 50’s and I was part of the “women’s movement” and yet I used to read Cosmo back in the day. The magazine was much more tame, but after a while it just became too much. I have to do all this stuff to get a man? I have to get a man? Really? Funny, I thought I was happy. I read Helen Gurley Brown’s “Having It All.” Guess what. She lied. It’s all a big lie, but Cosmo wants you to believe it so they can sell ads.

    I cringe when I see all this stuff that I can only describe as smut. I’m tired of the skin show; porn on parade. I think being “sexy” is so much more complicated.

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  34. Peter, well written, insightful post. I am a mother of a 16 year old young woman. Thankfully, she is open with me, and we discuss topics like this often. And the Santorum brou-ha-ha you mentioned.
    She also has a sense of humor. The two of us were standing in the (long) line at the drugstore one evening. We were biding our time glancing at the mag covers by the checkout. Of course, there was a Cosmo, with the usual "100 hot, new sex positions you've never seen before" in bold lettering on the cover. My daughter turned to me and said, "You'd think they would have run out of positions by now." Cracked me up, and everyone else in line.
    I remember as a very young girl, my sibs and cousin would sneak my mom's cosmo (mid-60's?) behind the couch and look at it, the 'racy' pics. I distinctly remember an almost bared breast shot. We thought that was a big deal way back then. We sure have come a long way.

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  35. I never was a reader of Cosmo -- even back in the 80s and 90s when I was in my 20s. It always seemed too instructive to me. Do this, buy that -- weirdly didactic in a way that was a "turn-off" (to keep the sex metaphor going). I agree with all your assessments about the one note harping on "sexiness" -- it's a bore. I think many of the commenters recognized the low-brow desperation in that ploy. It's sad, it the "snookification" of our culture. Is it bad that I just block it out and focus on what interests me? Meh. Can you hand me that copy of Vogue Patterns magazine, please.

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  36. Very thought provoking, Peter! I started reading my mom's Cosmo in the early 1980's while I was still in high school; it was considered a little racy at the time, but my over protective mother let me read it because if offered a cultural insight that we didn't get as much of in the pre internet days. I read it faithfully until shortly after Helen Gurley Brown left and the magazine took a turn from celebrating and empowering the liberated woman to becoming a homage to sleaze. When does sexy cross over to sleazy? When it sacrifices class and dignity.

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  37. The last time I bought Cosmo I thought, "never again." Your post is a great summary of the reasons why.

    Also enjoyed this: "Flirt fearlessly but beware the serial rapist on Craigslist!"

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  38. I agree with a lot of other posters: I stopped buying Cosmo a LONG time ago because of the reasons you've listed. Cosmo sends a very wrong message to young women; it is not empowering at all. I much prefer magazines like Bust, which is an adult version of Sassy. Sassy's no longer published--hasn't been for many, many, many, many years--but it was a really awesome teen magazine that addressed real issues, like birth control and how to protect yourself from STDs vs. the articles one found in YM or Teen Cosmo (which typically ran along the lines of how to dress and apply makeup).

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  39. I used to read Cosmo since I was 16 then I turned 23 and found it to be a very silly magazine. I prefer fashion magazines instead.
    About politics, I am catholic and the contraception issue is not about the pill it is about abortion. The media is misleading the information. The issue was about catholic doctors not being able to refuse to perform an abortion if the insurance was paying it.
    I came to this country and I liked it the way it was 16 years ago, not so much the way it is now. I like freedom of religion and freedom of everything basically.
    About the sexy topic, I am latin and in the past people around me thought of me being sexy because I wore fitted clothes and makeup all the time. To me it was a cultural thing.

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  40. Great post Peter. ...Relationships are work. I want to grow old with my husband and want to be seen at every stage of my life, and vice versa. But if I worshiped that roller coaster of the beginning of a relationship I'd never find out the depths of love. To me Cosmo is not just about sexy, it's about worshiping that feverish kind of sexuality and power that exists in beginnings and it creates a false want. Even when it finally gets down to talking about relationships it's about manipulation, not intimacy.

    I wanted to add that you are very gracious in the way you present a thought and allow for multiple viewpoints.

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  41. I think it is time for a 90's revival- I love love love the dress on the cover of the old Cosmo. I've never found much of interest to read in it, though. I've always felt as if I'm not their target market.

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  42. I don't read Cosmo and the like because I'm not interested in what they "say". It bores me. I don't have a problem with skin. I'm firmly in the "whatever float your boat" team.

    What I have a problem with, though, is their idea that you have to attract more (male) attention and/or be better than other women (whatever that "better" means). Always something else than yourself. The race never ends! But I'm not interested in some global male attention per se. I'm not interested in a fake competition with other women. I'm not their ennemy. I'm interested in being friends (or more) with some specific people, and if I have to constantly bend over backward for them and worry about not being [whatever] enough, something's wrong.

    The day women will stop seeing each other as rivals will be a good day. We are not children trying, some way or another, to be our parents' favourite. We're adult and important on our own.

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  43. Well said, Peter. It can be difficult to discuss sexualization of clothing because there DOES need to be some consideration given to choice and free will, and just because a woman shows skin shouldn't mean she's instantly branded as a hussy. But you're so right about the language used to describe both sexual acts/choices and sexy clothes: There are mixed messages there about power and shame. And it's all a bit insulting in the end.

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  44. I had always assumed that vampy clothing was a cheap way to attract men and no doubt it does work. But I've come to the realization that lingerie, vampy shoes, etc, primarily appeal to women. For men there is really no improving on buck naked. But, women aren't attracted to a naked women's body, they see that all to often and they discount it, maybe that's mixed up with poor body image but I think it's fundamental, too, the body is always there and what's so special about exposing it. But decorating the body in some way, that is out of the ordinary and arousing. I've never read much Cosmo so I don't know how far it goes or if it's getting worse and you don't have to be a feminist to think this is all completely out of place and degrading in an office setting. But I think the worry that women are being objectified can be overplayed, too. Everything has it's time and place and women who do read or even emulate this don't do it just because they're tools.

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  45. I had an American Cosmo in my hands some years ago, when I visited an American friend living here in my city. I found also the way too much focused on stories about how women should attract or please a men/partner. Too much focused on pleasure the others than oneself. I even can not remember about the fashion or trends shown there, but something I remember that is generally in the past fahion was focused on showing how one could be attractive, seductive, or sofisticated.

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  46. Interesting blog and many comments. I don't buy Cosmo or the like, as they offend my sense of sociability. The slutty trappings work like a mask to hide the real person behind them, and obscure the inner person as well. As I get older I appreciate the freedom of modesty for myself, and for younger women too. Cosmo readers aren't whole people yet, just insecure and one dimensional, or maybe working on that one dimension. But the editorial message is not very encouraging. What's stopping them from presenting a whole woman instead of a slut? Couldn't advertisers sell more than makeup and insecurity?

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  47. Elaine (Nobody you know)March 14, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    I'm so glad you opened this discussion, even though it will not be easily resolved. This is a magazine aimed at girls, not women. It's all fantasy -- the bodies, the men, the clothes, the jewelry, the jobs at which the entire office day revolves around sex (that part is probably most realistic!). Three years ago, today's Cosmo Girl was obsessively changing ball gowns and dragging her parents to track down every princess at the amusement park. She missed out on the real fun of Disney World then, and she's missing out on the real fun of life now. I wouldn't call it degrading necessarily, but it's certainly limiting.

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  48. I kind of think its something in between. It is great and important that women feel empowered. But how far should that go, when you putting yourself in the position to be objectified. These women that get upset over someone calling them a slut because of the way they are dress, should they be upset? Yes

    But then again, if you are wearing a police uniform, people will call you police officer. If you are wearing a whore's uniform, don't be surprised when you are called a whore.
    Be prepare to own your own actions, and move on.

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  49. I perfectly agree with what Rose said above. Also, I do think it is funny how much these magazines obsess over pleasing men sexually, as if a) it's some great mystery and b) all men are the same. So silly.

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    1. I hate to say it, but also c)it's that difficult :)

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  50. Check out the latest issue of "W" for more porn-inspired material. I'm finding fashion magazines pretty ridiculous these days. My 21 month old grandson was looking at this issue with me and kept saying "nipples!! because that's what he kept seeing. Who wears clothes that are that revealing? We did in the 70's, but I thought those days were over, with all the bras built to make darn sure that part of our anatomy can no longer been detected.

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  51. Fascinating - thanks for this column. My daughter was born in March, 1972, and the big Cosmo sensation that month was its centerfold nude photograph of Burt Reynolds. The magazine was being passed around by a group of new mothers in Doctors Hospital's (Seattle) maternity ward. It all seemed like so much b.s. at the time and I have to say the magazine still does. I've personally never bought a Cosmo - certainly no reason to start now. Its content is disturbing and not at all realistic.

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  52. I've always found the word "naughty" in relationship to sex not only insulting but creepy. Given that the word's only other use in common English is to describe the behavior of disobedient children, and in absolutely no other context is it used to describe the behavior, shameful or not, of adults, there are just plain pedophilic overtones to it that completely turn me off.

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  53. I think you've missed a much more interesting question for discussion here--it's not that Cosmo sells sexual empowerment (and boy howdy, as a woman too young to remember 1991, do I enjoy my sexual empowerment). It's all about pleasing your man! And in this really dumb, apply [noun] to [bodypart] way. There's really not much about mutual pleasure, asserting your own desires, etc. It's just about using sex to entrap a man and then, when it all goes south, instead of having a conversation with him, blindfold him and run a comb gently over his manly bits.

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  54. I forgot my "in conclusion": Yes, Cosmo is degrading, but not just because the word sex is on the cover.

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  55. I always tell my 11 year old granddaughter that guys like the thrill of the hunt. If you show them everything there is nothing to "hunt". I constantly stress modesty with her and encourage her to further her education. It's wonderful that the Girl Scouts still exist. They empower girls with a "can do" attitude. Just like Rosie the Riveter :) Thankfully, some things never change...

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  56. I must disagree (respectfully, of course) with Lizz M's position that the recent uproar over the conservative right is about abortion, not birth control. It's really about neither. It is about equality for women, who should have the right (and obligation) to control their own bodies. What does it say when a Congressional committee consisting entirely of white, middle-aged men, convene to decide the future of contraception? What does it say when the Texas legislature recently made it law that a woman seeking an abortion must submit--without her consent-- to a ten inch probe inserted into her vagina?
    I don't want to hijack the discussion, Peter, but it is relevant to how women are perceved in the country---and how often they buy into it.

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  57. I quit paying attention to what others say is the "in" thing to do. My dad told me years ago "Baby girl,no matter what the world says,keep a little mystery about yourself". I don't want to see anyones breasts,crotch,butt crack or underwear! You seem to be in a reflective mood with this one Peter!

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  58. Carole hit it on the nailhead, I think. The white middle aged men in politics are hoping to control women and drag us all back to the bad old days. Barefoot and pregnant, anyone? Arranged marriages/sales of girls? Female service for no pay? These hobgoblins are still out there happy to come back.

    Peter made another good point about the division of views between large urban communities and the rest of the country. I am a transplanted urban Californian living in rural Ohio, which is quite a culture shock. My neighbors voted for Santorum! I think they are frightened by changes in the social systems that have especially changed women's lives, and the men who were invested in that system don't want to let go. It is really ugly and cruel, and the shouting isn't over. GOP candidates have been whipping people into a knee-jerk willingness to make snap decisions about complex policies, and discrediting a civil public life.

    Cosmo could be seen as a manual of tease, with no discussion of the consequences. Domestic violence is up during hard times, the awful consequences of people out of control and preoccupied with power. Women's new options cannot afford to lose sight of our cultural history, and we are still fighting off the double bind of blaming the victims. Cosmo seems to think that playing the tease and borrowing an esthetic from whores is a matter of "style," but it is also a matter of intellectual dishonesty, pretending the past doesn't matter.

    Whew, sorry, enough from me!

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  59. I am 51, and the need to still be "hot" exhausts me. When do I get to just be a person who is not defined by her sexual attractivity (not a word, but should be)? The likes of Snooki, Paris Hilton, and Kim Kardashian, highlight how we have come to celebrate trash. No wonder children in India and China are kicking our behinds when it comes to learning and innovation in things that matter.

    The fact is if any one of the three young women I mentioned disappeared tomorrow, once the media hype dissipated, it would make no difference whatsoever. They simply don't matter, and I wish I could go into a store and not see them on the cover of any magazines.

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  60. "It's like those womens magazines that offer brownie recipes on one page while telling you how to shed those last ten pounds on another. Flirt fearlessly but beware the serial rapist on Craigslist!"

    Great summary. Those contradictions and the endless quizzes are why I gave up on Cosmo decades ago, and eventually Vogue. Take a walk through some old Vogues sometime and half a laugh over the latest, stratospherically expensive diet/physical therapy/plastic surgery being touted.


    Not all, but a number of young women today seem to have no backbone and no sense of history. (Please explain the 1950s retrophilia to me. Do they understand what the 1950s was like for women and other oppressed groups like racial minorities and gays?)

    They don't understand that with freedom comes responsibility. I once had an online argument with a young woman who insisted that feminism meant she had the right to come into her company's office dressed liked a stripper.

    Here's another comparison: "Take Back the Night" versus "Slutwalk." Both were marches led by women to affirm their right to walk the streets without being harassed. But with Slutwalk, instead of protesting pejorative language and attitudes, some of the women were capitulating to the very attitudes they were supposedly fighting by dressing like prostitutes.

    True sexual sexual empowerment includes the ability to celebrate one's sexuality without objectifying oneself or being objectified. Of course, it's considerably more difficult for a consumer society to exploit that.

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    1. >Please explain the 1950s retrophilia to me<

      I take it as a turning away from the long running trend towards the ever-more-casual trend clothing has taken the last few decades. It may also have to do with celebrating gender differences after a long asexual fight for gender parity. (That's right: hard won rights are being taken for granted, and instead of being respected for their fight, the old gender warriors are considered uptight and PC.)

      I don't know about "Slutwalk" but "Take Back the Night" was misandrist and stupid. I say this from the perspective of one past the reactionary phase of identifying as a feminist. It may have been helpful to those in the midst of the reactionary phase at the time.

      >True sexual empowerment includes the ability to celebrate one's sexuality without objectifying oneself or being objectified.<

      In as much as I can eat b-day cake without having a birthday myself, I suppose you're accurate. I do not believe it is possible to truly engage in sex, even onanism, without some objectification going on. Perhaps you meant objectification only in a bad way, in which case I totally agree with you.

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  61. Empowering AND degrading.

    I think the internet democratized pornography. The mainstreaming of porn is a mixed bag, but I think more good than bad, in the whole. Like you, I think prostitution ought to be legalized (and unionized). I also think dressing like a prostitute on occassion can be liberating. I don't think there should be a stigma attached to dressing immodestly. I'm annoyed when I see women dressing provocatively in what seems to me to be the wrong occassions, but I guess that's part of establishing new norms.

    Young women will always be vulnerable to pressure to look a certain way. Cosmo seems to speak to that insecurity, and exploit it, which is a mixed bag and mostly bad. However, the media is a 2ndary or even tertiary source of identity, IMO. Peers have way more influence than Cosmo, so hopefully more girls are falling in with the Bust Magazine crowd than the Cosmo group.

    I think parents have more influence than Cosmo. Mine wouldn't let me have a Barbie doll which was just irksome as a kid, but , I think it gave me a gut-level skepticism about ideal bodies, which helped with my gut-level insecurity (normal teen stuff) about my attractiveness. I don't recall either of my parents ever going on a diet or speaking disparagingly about their own bodies. I can't know firsthand how much a parent complaining about hir pudge/stretch marks might impact a developing mind, but I suspect I'm very lucky. (Thanks, Mom.)

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  62. I never read Cosmo - not in my teens, 20s, anything. The only times I came into contact with it, usually when a friend had a copy, would inevitably cause me to ask said friend, "seriously, why do you read this?" I mean, really, the Cosmo approach to sex, sexuality, attraction, gender, you-name-it, is so freaking limited that they must have begun recycling story ideas by the time they got to their 4th issue.

    However, I wonder if this sex-plosion is in part a gauge of how freaking trashy our culture has become, generally speaking. I remember thinking, in the 90s, that Cosmo was outrageous, its headlines provocative - heck, I remember that even mentioning Madonna's biography was, like, WHOA! Some scandal about photos of Madonna and Dennis Rodman in bed together, wasn't it? Show of hands - who remembers? (let's date ourselves, shall we?) ;) So, while 1991 may look tame to me now, I rather suspect that's rather the result of a changing cultural climate; I think Cosmo has likely always been on the cutting edge of cultural decay!

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  63. Glad to see someone ELSE has noticed this phenomenon of what I call "Whore mentality" invading psyches everywhere. The funny thing about it is that nobody calls it by that name. They just pretend that it's all fun and harmless, when it definitely isn't.

    I was one of those who 'came of age in the late seventies, when the "sexual freedom" movement was hitting its stride. Anyone remeber the book "My Secret Garden" by Nancy Friday? It had a sequel, "Forbidden Flowers" and it contains a contribution from me: I was 18 at the time. Looking back, I am glad I came along when I did...because the world that young women are growing up in now is a THOUSAND times more degrading and perilous than was that society in which I grew up. When i look at the big picture, I cannot say that 'sexual freedom' has been any "blessing" to women; in fact I think a "return to chastity" is called for, especially with STDs running rampant the way they are!

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  64. I followed Tanit-Isis' link over to this article, and it's timely! Just today my 13 yr old was looking for a grade 8 grad dress. Let me tell you that the mainstream cheese for sale in the grad dress department was disgusting to my eye. Regardless of the sexy/cheap issue, it was a VERY hard conversation trying to explain that more glitz and skin is NOT to be preferred to tasteful, chic and classy, which, BTW, I think garners respect instead of leering.

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  65. Dude you do realise that only women in their teens read Cosmo? I don't know anyone that's read it post-high school. I too am pro-porn and support the legalisation and unionisation of prostitution. And I feel that in general its only the very young that focus on dressing 'trashy' in order to be 'cool'. They realise pretty quickly that no ones going to take them seriously unless they use things other than T&A to project their image. Most people snap out of it by their mid-twenties at the latest (want to see this in action? Visit your nearest University- its the first years that dress and act like retards. By the time they're in honours they've barely enough time to dress up in the morning forget about dressing 'skankily'). Those that don't, well they're useful for everyone else to point out to their kids while cautioning them what NOT to wear.

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  66. What a thought provoking post. I especially love your side-by-side comparison of the two issues. Just from the headlines alone, it's not difficult at all to tell which is the more recent. I'm a 33 year old mother of two (just for a little background). I'd never really given much thought to this subject. However, now that you bring it up, my feeling is that it's just a matter of attention grabbing headlines run-amok, and an over use of the "sex sells" philosophy to sell more magazines. And I personally feel neither degraded, nor empowered.

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  67. Fascinating post, fascinating replies...I do hope that taking one's life direction from "the media" is limited to the foolish and the shallow. I think most women are savvy enough to know that they are being marketed to, and act accordingly. As far as female empowerment is concerned, well- I like wearing high heels, I like being glamorous, and I love rockin' my husband's world. I also find it occasionally satisfying when I am objectified- which, honestly, happens infrequently. Enhancing and exaggerating my femininity is a pleasurable pursuit for me, and if it wasn't I darn sure wouldn't do it. I demand equal rights for everyone, and I do it wearing a push-up bra!

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  68. I read Cosmo briefly in high school, and even then found the language rather demeaning, like the writers were idiots or they expected their readers to be. The, forced injection of sexual language into fashion and makeup articles, as seen her in the shoe and nail article here, ridiculous words used for genitals and sexual acts- etc., it's just badly written all the way through, and the advice is rubbish too, never mind how it is so obviously meant to feed off readers' insecurities and sell, sell, sell.

    It's not the sex or "skanky" dressing that offends me, I believe that exploring one's sexuality and learning how to express and play with it in a healthy way, is very important for- well, everybody, but especially young women, and I think that dressing provocatively can be a legitimate part of that. Maybe Cosmo is trying to look like it will help you on that journey, but it's missing the essential message of self acceptance, of really tuning in to what feels good for you, in the short term and the long term, and communicating honestly with your partner.

    Me, I'm 24, I'm a dancer (tango mostly), I love my body, how capable and beautiful it is and I really enjoy showing it off. Some of that comes from knowing how my body fits into the box of what is traditionally considered attractive in our society, that our society in many ways encourages women that fit into that box to show off their bodies. But there's also an innate joy for me in being barely clothed (or naked, as the case may be), and, as an artist, in composing outfits that are interesting and fun to wear, and that, perhaps, let me explore different sides of myself.

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  69. I'm frankly fed up with sexiness as a fashion statement. It's oppresive, creepy, gross, slutty and boring. The racism battle in the US may have been won, but the sexism battle has been lost. And worse, the women are in compliance with becoming sex objects.

    Many women I've worked with come to work half naked, wearing skin tight clothing, and constantly flirting with any man that comes within speaking distance. I can't take them seriously. I am MORE than sex. Tired of this!

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  70. Magazines like Cosmo are the reason books like 50 Shades of Grey are popular. They also have a lot in common: gratuitous sex and little content.

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