rachael ray, the human body, and self-image

The Huffington Post headline reads, “Rachael Ray Defends FHM Shoot,” and the question is: why does Ray need to defend herself? Defend herself from what? From the traditional perspective comes the shock that a woman would pose in saucy pictures for a men’s magazine, even though plenty of women’s magazines feature scantily clad women on their covers too. It would seem that the moral of the story is that women’s bodies appeal to everyone, not just men, but still, the message from tradition is clear: women who expose their bodies are degrading themselves. Even when we praise this sort of photographic endeavour as strength of character, we apparently can’t let our admiration for women who take control of their own bodies go unchallenged by prudish notions that it’s all subject to sex and commerce, to other people’s desires.

But what if asking Ray to defend her decision to pose for FHM is itself misogynistic? Shouldn’t people viewing the images take responsibility for their own interpretation of these images? Perhaps beauty is being sexualized when it doesn’t need to be – a body is a body, like a work of art – or perhaps there really is sexual dimension to everything, which is fine as long as it comes with the recognition that the sexual dimension isn’t always a meaningful, useful, or valuable. Either way, this lionization of sex skewers our body images. Since we all have bodies, and they are natural, the notion that using our bodies is degrading is itself degrading; it takes us into an abstracted interpretation of the world, and away from the world itself.

“This magazine has as young as seventeen, eighteen-year-olds in hottie bikinis, and these are all actresses, models, pin-up girls,” she said in an interview with ABC News. “I don't belong to any, even remote, club of theirs. And I thought if I'm gutsy enough to do this, this is a good thing for everybody. This is the everywoman, here she is.”

It’s as good a refutation as any, and it goes beyond sexism to how we culturally interpret beauty itself. There’s an obsession with perfection, with standards, with ideal body types, enforced through the media and our own interpersonal relationships. But who’s to say that only skinny toothpicks are beautiful? Why are we programmed to be so damn picky, to reject the slightest curve, the slightest hair, the slightest lack of symmetry? It seems to me that the problem isn’t just the sexualization of beauty, but also the fetishization of it. Our standards of beauty, though variable between individuals, are focused like a fetish on a few features instead of being open to a whole spectrum. Hence, the obsessive preference for skinny instead of voluptuous, tall instead of short, muscular instead of lean – pick your preferred trait – fetishized beauty instead of holistic beauty.

The nudists may be on to something when it comes to dissociating sex from beauty with the goal of simply accepting the human beauty in its natural form. There’s something to be said about finding beauty in everyone and not letting clothes become some sort of psychological trap.

There’s an interest web project by German photographer Sebastian Kempa, called Naked People, that touches on the topic of our relationship to nudity. It’s cleverly set up: people standing in front of a white background, fully clothed. Click on the image, however, and the clothes fade away. There is a range of genders, ages, and body types – not professional models, but everyday folk. The blurb on the homepage, translated from the German, essentially asks to what extent clothes reveal the person beneath. We can tell a person’s occupation, yes, but can we really trust what we see? What happens if, beneath the suit, we discover a tattoo? Does it destroy the illusion, does the person remain inscrutable? Kempa asks us to consider these question through images of dressed/undressed individuals.

Which brings me back to Rachael Ray. We all appreciate beauty, however defined. We all make efforts to look good, or look at things that visually please us. Why be ashamed of it? Why be narrow-minded about it? Let’s just appreciate beauty in all its forms. Let’s have fun instead of being uptight. Let’s not ask women, or men, to defend themselves for having a body, which is obviously natural, and using it.

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