Here’s a non-controversial opinion: I enjoy The New York Times’ Room for Debate section and its commitment to diversely exploring issues like consent, reproductive rights, racism, sexism – pretty much any –ism one can think of.
It’s strange, though, to unexpectedly find yourself in one of its opinion piece’s crosshairs. And stranger still to be caught like that with your pants not just down, but completely off.
And who am I, hanging around bottomless? I’m the creator and co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, a digital brand dedicated to educating and inspiring about women and girls. Gender constructs, intersectional feminism, women’s history, the biological female body and how all of those things have culturally collided over time are my daily bread and butter, or more like all-I-can-write-podcast-and-vlog buffet.
Oh, and I’m also one-time underwear model who unwittingly helped take women’s progress back a couple hops. Allegedly.
When I recently noticed a Room for Debate on cultural appropriation, I clicked. It’s something my Stuff Mom Never Told You co-host Caroline and I have addressed in-depth on the podcast, and I’m always interested in learning more about the lines between honoring versus outright exploitation and erasure.
Then I saw it: “Selling Out Women, a Pair of ‘Feminist’ Panties at a Time” by Jennifer Pozner, a feminist media analyst whom I follow and whose insights I’ve referenced a number of times on Stuff Mom Never Told You.
In short, Pozner rightly notes how feminist-lite messaging has been increasingly cropping up in advertising, aka empowertising. But her prime example? Not a big player like Always, whose Like a Girl campaign managed the impossible of making us smile, cry and briefly consider wearing maxi pads all at the same time.
Instead, she focuses on performance underwear startup Dear Kate whose signature lookbook style features professional women as its amateur panty and activewear models.
Think Dove Real Beauty but without the backhanded suggestions that all women secretly think they’re hideous piles of soggy cereal who just need the right kind of body wash to scrub their pathetic self-images clean.
This, Pozner writes, is merely cultural appropriation “made of lace and flattery” and “a regressive step back for women.” She then goes on to specifically cite a viral Dear Kate ad featuring women in tech and declare they’ve doomed their careers, on top of fellow women, because “any Googling by future employers would reveal the coders and CEOs in their skivvies before turning up their resumes.”
My pulse quickened.
Not only was she talking about the bright orchid feminist-in-quotes panties I was wearing right then (and a thong no less), she was talking about me. No, I wasn’t that tech-themed shoot, but I’m pretty sure the regression still applies.
Next, I Googled.
My inner journalism student had to fact check if, as Pozner predicted, my digital image was henceforth ruined to all recruitment managers.
Then, I breathed.
My LinkedIn photo popped up first, although a Dear Kate-unrelated screenshot of me holding up my bra wasn’t far behind it.
What concerned me most though wasn’t the suggestion that I was doing my feminism terribly wrong, but the broader implications made.
For one, I don’t think all empowertising is created (un)equally, as I wrote about more in depth over at Medium.
More pertinent to us here at xoJane is this underlying notion that women must be the gatekeepers of their individual and collective sexual objectification because our credibility is inherently under threat by merely inhabiting our own bodies.
And to be clear, I doubt this the direct message Pozner was trying to get across, nor am I looking to spark a fruitless feminist vs. feminist shouting match that will get nobody anywhere. Rather, I’m offering up my experience on both sides of this as a springboard to question why women posing in some underwear in a spirit of lady start-up camaraderie could be deemed an endangering choice.
A couple months back, when Dear Kate invited me to pose in their products, I didn’t hesitate to agree. There was even some fist pumping involved. Pretty much ever since I first learned about this feminist-founded company that makes undies and activewear designed to handle stuff like periods, incontinence and uterine prolapse, I’ve been a personal fan.
After interviewing chemical engineer-turned-founder and Julie Sygiel for the Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast and learned more about her commitment to destigmatizing women’s bodies and representing body diversity, I became a professional fan. An informed consumer, I was sold.
Weeks later, when I was standing in a Bushwick apartment half-naked, along with my co-host and co-model Caroline, no second thoughts arose.
Standing tall (in my underwear), working on my laptop (in my underwear), laughing alongside Caroline (in my underwear), I wasn’t pre-worried about how Stuff Mom Never Told You fans might react, as we were neither degrading ourselves, nor pandering to a male gaze, which was literally nowhere to be found at the all-lady shoot. Queen Bey thumping in the background certainly didn’t hurt either.
During lunch, Caroline, the crew and me huddled around a laptop to watch Taylor Swift’s then-new “Bad Blood” video and discussed the pros and cons of its contrasting girl-on-girl violence with overtly sexy costuming, which seems ironic as I’m writing this now.
I looked down and realized I was sitting around with a group of near strangers in just my underwear and a tank top. No embarrassed surfaced. Instead, it felt kind of great.
I understand that some people will see the Dear Kate photos of me on the Internet and imagine what’s underneath those reinforced undies. I also understand that some future employer might raise an eyebrow to the “Feminist Underwear Model” bullet in my resume’s Additional Skills.
But even if I had turned down Dear Kate, potentially being objectified and my credibility being downgraded based on my body and visible skin is an unfortunate fact of the matter in the workplace at large. No matter what my LinkedIn profile touts, I will never, ever be able to fully insulate myself from that.
However, one thing I did have the power to change for an afternoon, for a handful of photographs at least, is the continual flow of advertising images that have historically sexualized the female body to the point that it cannot be seen without assumptions of readiness and desire.
A far cry from pulling women back, my moment in the modeling spotlight was an example of pushing the narrative forward and broadening the definition of a woman undressed might mean.
Because in my case, in those specially designed Dear Kate panties, it might mean that I was mid-menstruation or involuntarily peeing myself and not feeling ashamed and grossly unfit for public contact. And that kind of self-care and bodily acceptance, not exposure, sounds mighty empowering to me.