Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Instagram, sexual subversion, and booty pics

Anyone who knows me knows I love Instagram a little too much. I'm a very visual person, and great photography (of Black girls, architecture, and fashion, in that order) really gets me going. It's very important to me that my Instagram is an honest representation of my life; the things I enjoy, the things I struggle with -- I share whatever I feel can be accurately captured in small social-media-sized bites because I enjoy doing so.

What this means is that my Instagram posts divulge what many might consider private information to random strangers, family and friends alike, and sometimes what I share is uncomfortable for the people who actually know me.

A little context: I come from a very conservative Christian background, and as recently as early last year I was still very actively giving Christianity a go. That has changed, of course, but my circles have not. Most of my friends and family are still quite born-again, and while many of them do their best to respect my choices (I will always appreciate that), they don't necessarily understand or approve.

My Instagram doesn't have an overt feminist agenda, but from time to time I post photos of my body that are sexy/sexual/easy to interpret as sexual, because an important part of my personal feminist practice is (re)claiming my bodily autonomy. I actively reject the notion that the female body (mine, especially) is by default a sexually charged thing, and I reserve the right to use my body in whatever ways I choose.

Yesterday my sister, who is very sweet and so tries very hard not to interfere with my personal choices, but who can't help feeling the way she does about topless photos of me, mentioned her unhappiness over this post:

It wasn't the first time someone who loves and has known me for a while would express concern over what I posted, and it reminded me that I wanted to write about it.

I think there is something very powerful about any kind of deliberate subversion that a woman performs with her body. Whether it is wearing revealing clothing, being unapologetically sexual, breastfeeding in conservative public spaces, etc., I think such things can be liberating.

Female sexuality (as expressed in the body) is perceived as transgressive in a patriarchal society. That's why little girls and minors can be tagged 'fast' by society, that's why victim-blaming in sexual assault cases sticks, that's why any woman can be called a whore. Whether or not a woman plays by the rules, her body is, by virtue of its femaleness, bad.

It was when I recognised this and the ways in which I had internalised this idea that it became important for me to reclaim my body in any and every way that felt powerful to me.

This was the first 'sexy' picture that I ever posted to my Instagram, and my family and friends apparently went into apoplectic shock. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but this Beyoncé-inspired photo (which I agonised over before posting, I might add!) was discussed at dinner tables with horror. I felt quite upset when I found out (mostly because a lot of this horrified talk was conducted behind my back) and while I could understand where they were coming from, I didn't agree with them, nor was I apologetic.

This is why:

The body is a blank canvas, and society's interactions with it have less to do with how it is presented than with how society works. The way society works right now is dysfunctional, and I am committed to changing that in whatever way I can.

To be clear, I am as much a sexual being as I am a thinker, a mother, a friend, whatever. But because I am female, it is inappropriate for me to be up-front or open about my sexuality. I'm not supposed to have sexual needs; my sexuality exists to please the one man who will validate me by favouring me with a wedding ring. Any 'untoward' sexual behaviour (which is really any display of bodily or sexual agency) will limit or completely erase my chances of finding such a man, because my worth as a person depends on how neatly I fit into the 'Madonna' end of the Madonna/Whore binary.

It is the rejection of these absurd notions that I find powerful. My body is as much a part of me as my mind, my gifts, or my abilities, and it is just as valuable. If I can challenge popularly held beliefs about what is 'okay' for a woman to do or be by using my body in ways that are deemed transgressive, then I'm all for it. If I can rattle someone's faith in the 'sexual woman, bad/non-sexual woman, good' norm, count me in. If someone can say to me, "women aren't supposed to...", and we can have a conversation about why that is complete and utter bullshit because of something I've posted, yay!

After all, I am a feminist.