IT'S TIME TO FEEL THE RAIN ON YOUR SKIN: Fighting the Social Stigma around the Female Body
by Helena Nikitopoulos
Contributing Writer Helena Nikitopoulos is a graduate of Western University, where she studied English and Film. Follow her on Instagram: @helenawrites and @helenafitness.
Photos: Kaylee Perkins @KayleePerkinsPhotography on Instagram
"While more awareness is being brought towards the level of sexism in dress codes across North America, there doesn’t seem to be the same level of justice seeking in the online world."
When I was in elementary school, I was ridiculed by a teacher for wearing a tank top because “the straps were showing”. I was twelve years old. Many other girls in my school were also told to go home and change because they were “rejecting the appropriate school dress code”. Transferring to High School wasn’t any easier. Many female students were told to go home and change or “cover up” as they didn’t want them distracting any of the other students. At the time, I thought these ridiculous rules were normal. I felt shameful walking into school showing my shoulders. I’M SUCH A REBEL. I would think to myself as I took off my cardigan. I hope Ms. T. doesn’t see me. Now, a good 5 years later, the insidious reality of what school dress codes imply is clear: the unspoken message is that girls are responsible for the ways boys view them, and by implication, the catalysts for any bad behaviour on the part of boys and men. Shame and stigma around the female body are the ugly after-effects. I couldn’t be more mortified at the reality I had lived in not so long ago.
While more awareness is being brought towards the level of sexism in dress codes across North America, there doesn’t seem to be the same level of justice seeking in the online world. On social media platforms, such as Instagram, a woman posts a photo of herself in a bikini and is depicted as “un-lady like”. If she posts herself in a tank top with her chest showing, “she is asking for it”. If she is wearing a short skirt, she is begging for “the wrong kind” of attention. I decided to challenge this sense of shame geared towards women on social media by doing a topless shoot with a good friend of mine, Kaylee Perkins (who also happens to be a very talented photographer). I remember standing on the beach in a pair of damp jeans and a light brown hat. That was it. Just a pair of jeans and a hat, my chest bare. I could feel the male gaze from miles away. But I didn’t care. In Ancient Greece, nudity was a sign of virtue and morality in which the female body represented a strong force of nature. So we should look at the female body for what it truly is: as a powerful entity that should be embraced by the world rather than shunned.
We are women. We are beautiful. We are strong. And we are raw.
When I first got the photos back, I didn’t know if I had it in me to post them online. What would everyone think? Would my followers and friends view me any less of a woman? Would I be viewed as an attention seeker? Is this too much skin? But then I remembered how often women must think the same thing before posting a bikini photo. So, then I thought, why do the most natural parts of ourselves have to remain hidden? Why are they seen as shameful on the one hand and a commodity on the other? Why couldn’t we just embrace our bodies? So, I did it. I posted the photos of my most raw and natural self for all to see. I posted them with the caption: “Just trying to end the social stigma around the female body, hby?”.
"The goal of the photo wasn’t to show as much skin as possible, it was to portray my most natural and peaceful self."
In a matter of seconds, likes, comments, and reposts started rolling in. There were some who questioned my choices as they didn’t believe I had posted it for social awareness but for attention (go figure). However, some asked the right questions like “How is this photo going to end the social stigma around the female body?” I would argue that it doesn’t necessarily put an end to the stereotypes that surround women’s bodies; it has been around for generations and will most likely be around for many more. However, I do think it helps move us in the right direction. The sun glistening on my bare back, my feet wedged in the wet sand: it is a picture that embodies my most natural and effortless self; no retouching, no makeup. The goal of the photo wasn’t to show as much skin as possible, it was to portray my most natural and peaceful self. I didn’t want to shock the public, I wanted to give them a sense of ease, a sense of familiarly, and comfortability, so that they would feel more comfortable in their own skin and realize that we only “cover up” because society repeatedly tells us to.
When I posted the photos, many of my friends, colleagues, and even old high school classmates reached out to me, sharing how the photos made them admire their beauty marks, freckles, and cellulite more. As I look through the photos taken that crisp summer day, I can’t help but think, how do you like my shoulders now, Ms. T.?