Three Inches Of Sideboob: On Preemptive Body-Shaming, The Phantom Gaze, And “A Little Too Much”
I opened the photo file and gasped.
My hand rested on my chest, keeping my deep-V sweater in place on what I remembered was an unusually chilly spring day. It had misted in Venice that weekend – a not-quite-drizzle not-quite-overcast-fog that, of course, sent anyone without an umbrella running for their homes (because, L.A.). We’d been walking and laughing around the virtually empty city all afternoon, one of those seemingly insignificant little moments in time you remember forever.
It was one of the last shots of the day, ending at my home, cozy inside and good-tired from the adventure in the canals and alleys and sidewalks and streets. My collarbone was completely exposed, and instead of being sullen or starved it was soft and delicate. It was nice to see it that way. I’d always loved my collarbone. One of those random parts of your body you just love for no reason, you know?
There I was, close up, no edits or posing, looking exactly as I felt at my very, very best.
Calm. At ease. Curious. Fearless. Beautiful.
I decided it was my favorite picture of me ever.
It’s hard not to feel like, when it comes to our bodies, women just can’t win. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t: shamed for our fatness and shamed for our thinness, sneered at for curves and poked at for slightness. The ones who lean too far one way are blasted for not being “real” enough; the ones in the other direction are told we don’t fit in. By any one person’s standards, we’ll aways be failing. We’re sexualized by others from the time we started to develop but somehow not allowed to own our sexuality with pride strictly for ourselves. God forbid we love our bodies, god forbid we reach our own Peak Feminine. There are rules around being sexual, being bold, being beautiful: we’re allowed to think so if others don’t, we’re forbidden if we’ve already been sexualized by somebody else.
The bullshit is that it’s not consistent. We’re pulled and shoved all which ways, told we need to be humble and cover up (both physically and emotionally) in one breath then encouraged to “be more confident” in the next. We’re told we should feel beautiful and love our bodies, then a split second later chastised for being full of it.
At the time this photo was taken, I hadn’t told anyone about my eating issues. I hadn’t told them about the binging, I hadn’t told them about the crippling self-doubt, I hadn’t told them about the physical hangups I’d been working so hard to overcome. I also hadn’t let on about the good stuff: the dreams of making an impact, the hopes of having a worldwide reach, the vision of being a pioneer of some kind for women everywhere. At this point in my life, I was fun and pleasant. I was the perfect sidekick. And I noticed that that perception was winning me seats at the table. It was a comfortable place to be which guaranteed likability, didn’t ask me to be vulnerable, and most certainly didn’t open me up for discussion or debate. I was able to channel my sassiness and sexiness into one-off experiences, like auditions or photo shoots, where I could catch glimpses of my truest self without worrying that anyone would place judgment.
And so here I was: looking at one particular photo that seemed to capture how I felt all the time, but never owned up to in real life.
That night, I decided to post it onto Facebook as my profile photo. It was one of those moments in which I was so proud of how far I’d come, how I finally looked healthy again, how at peace I seemed. And frankly, I thought I looked damn good.
I posted and smiled and walked away. It felt good to be proud.
The next day was a different story. I remember so distinctly the deflation. Parking my car and walking to the coffee shop to meet up with a friend of mine. Seeing her waiting, smiling, hugging her hello. The first thing to come out of her mouth?
“Katie, that picture you posted on Facebook.
But…you know…it’s a little too much.”
My heart sank.
Had I done something wrong? Had I posted something offensive?
Later that day, a male acquaintance commented to me about “the picture.” And when he did, he looked at me in a different way than he normally did – with his eyebrows raised and a smile that made me uncomfortable. Holy crap, I was definitely pushing boundaries with this shot of me in a sweater. I went home and signed on to scrutinize the photo.
And with my veil of confidence being ripped in half, I could see the problem:
Three inches of side-boob.
Okay, technically, Jezebel defines this exact area as innerboob, not sideboob. But to me, it’s still the side and the reaction it gets from others is the same (plus I just learned this term and it doesn’t quite roll off tongue just yet, so for the sake of this piece, sideboob it is). Maybe the sideboob would have been passed over in a different kind of picture. I’d certainly shown way more in the past than what was being revealed in that low-cut wool sweater.
But there it was, right there in frame, in a close-up of me lying on my couch, with a non-smiling face gazing into the camera. I was mortified.
As I kept scrutinizing, my heart plummeted further and further into the recesses of shame: How could I have been so naive to have missed how suggestive this picture was? How could I have had the ladyballs to take, let alone POST, such a come-hither type shot? Suddenly it didn’t matter what I had thought or what my intentions (or complete lack thereof) had been. I felt ashamed, I felt stupid, I felt angry at the girl in the photo for not pulling up her damn V-neck.
I took it down before anyone else could see – although I was positive everyone else had seen.
This one isolated moment might sound specific, but it happens to us as women ALL THE TIME. The cat calls on the street from men who argue they’re being complimentary. The undue attention when we’re just trying to get from point A to point B. The once-overs we get in the grocery store, the slight nudges we hear to button-up-that-top-button on our button-down shirt. The way the gym isn’t safe enough for sports bras and 100-degree weather isn’t permission enough for summer shorts. The way Woman X wearing a body-con dress can “get away with it” but Woman Y wearing a body-con dress is “trying too hard.” The way Woman 1 is “allowed” to preach the body-positive gospel but Woman 2 has “no idea what she’s talking about.” The way we’re either eating too much or too little – exercising too much or too little – “overdoing” our makeup or “would really look nice if we ‘cared’ once in a while.”
We’re taught to body shame ourselves before we even walk out the door, because if we notice it first, then maybe, just maybe, our own censorship will prevent the judgement of others.
After all, if we say it, we’ve said it first. And if we say it first – if we take ourselves down before anyone else notices – then when and if they do, we can oh so self-deprecatingly concur. Oh yes. I know. It’s way too much and I don’t approve, either. Accepting the duty of body-shaming and self censorship before anyone else can conceals us in that bubble of perpetual doubt and subservience – but it also means we’ve won. If we do it first, we’re in control. If we do it first, it’s not our fault.
After I took down that photo, I started doing less and less photo shoots for fun. And the ones I did, I became increasingly self-conscious during. What if the photographer thought I was trying too hard? What if I come off too strong when others see this? That’s what happens when we self-censor and body shame before anyone can get to us: we accept our lacking before we even step out the door.
It’s been an emotional day trying to write this (that’s what a thought five years in the making will do to ya), so I’m not going to veil this in niceties. I am sick and tired of people telling women to “stop beating up their bodies” and then ending the thought there. To some people, I can see how it might be empowering. But leaning on “stop” language focuses on getting rid of the problem without filling that newly empty space with solutions. When I read or hear this, even when it comes with the very best of intentions, I want to scream to the world – If I must stop beating myself up, WELL THEN WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO? If you say I need to stop the self-scrutiny yet the world I live in does not encourage the opposite, then where does that leave me? If we’re told we shouldn’t be self-conscious or body-loathing, but at the same time are made to believe walking down the street in a fucking tank top is equivalent to an indecent exposure violation, all we’ve got at the end of the day is a vast emotional disconnect.
It’s not that our culture wants us to shame ourselves, it’s that it wants us to be apathetic.
Have you noticed that brands don’t play on our insecurities like they used to? They don’t try and make us feel better – they try and make us feel SOMETHING. Instead of assuming we’re all fat-hating, skin-picking, spinster potential type women, advertisers and “influencers” play on our lack of anything to ignite us, fleetingly, to feel again. Passion without purpose. Statements without solutions. It’s Lois Lowry’s The Giver come to life, a world in which we commission others to feel for us because it’s safer to watch from afar. It’s horrifying.
Is it okay to get inspired by those advertisers and influencers and let them move us in ways that shake our souls a little or lotta bit? Of course! But we must, must, must expand on that. We must let the people we admire TEACH us to fish or farm instead of just waiting to be told what’s on the table. We must gaze out at our endless horizon and notice both the freedom and the smog pockets we want to clear up. And there is no more effective way to start doing that than by being brave from the inside out, by making small efforts every single day to take pride in that vehicle we drive around town.
When I look at that picture of myself, I feel nostalgic for a time I didn’t care. But if I take the romance out of it, I can clearly see I always cared. I just wore it in different ways. I’ve never not cared what others thought, I’ve never been brazen enough to tell others to f off. I soak in opinions and I internalize expectations; I always have.
It was just that this picture captured a glorious moment in time in which I cared so fiercely much about myself that my only option was worthiness.
I now have that picture saved on my desktop, right there in the corner where my eyes always drift. Owning my worthiness has been such a journey for me, one I’m working on daily. I feel heavy on the inside sometimes and wonder if I’m “allowed” to be uncomfortable. I feel beautiful on the outside sometimes and wonder if I’m “allowed” to own that thought. I put myself in situations that feel unfamiliar and I constantly need to remind myself that yes, you are smart, yes, you are beautiful, yes you are worthy, and YES, THAT’S OKAY. It’s wonderful to be an empath and want to make others feel at home, but not if that means sacrificing my worth in the meantime. I will not dull my sparkle just to make someone else comfortable.
I went back and forth as to whether I would publish this post or just keep it in my file of personal musings. Because of those three inches of sideboob, did I look like I was desperate for attention? Would I be perceived as stuck up, vain, “asking for it?” Would I get unwanted comments from men objectifying me and making me feel icky inside?
And then I thought, hell fucking no. I am posting this. Because if I don’t, I am not just a hypocrite, I am silencing myself once again based on the expectation that what a woman does and who a woman should be is to be determined by everyone but herself. If I don’t, I’m doing nothing to discourage women from staying in the box that’s been fabricated for her, the box she struggles to fit in in the first place. I am so tired of a woman’s beauty, confidence, sexuality, and worth being the property of everyone else’s opinion but her own. I am so enraged by the assumption that a flash of skin is always desperate or insecure or “asking to be” talked about behind the scenes. I am so sad that the catcalls on the streets and the comments on Instagram and the scoldings by strangers and family alike have created this phantom male gaze or just phantom GAZE in general that follows us to our closets, making us ask ourselves if we should throw on a jacket and cover up as we walk to our car in the morning because it’ll make us feel safe (spoiler alert: no outfit is “safe”). I am so disheartened seeing strong, incredible women being told from a very young age who and what is “too much,” usually when “too much” really just means the person saying it is in the midst of her own internal battle that has come with a lifetime of being told she should be “much less.”
We will always be “a little too much” for someone. We’re emotional, we’re nuanced, we’re beautiful and we’re flawed. We’re experimental, we’re guarded, we’re all out there in the open. To be female is to be so many things simultaneously, a whole symphony in a world that demands we boil ourselves down to one note. The complications of who we are make us exquisite. They also put us up for interpretation. And it’s a lie that we need to cater to every single possible interpretation before we leave the house. The only interpretation that matters is your intention, and the only intention that is worth living into is the one that comes from a place of self-love, not self loathing.
This week, make a point to do something, wear something, say something, be something that comes from that place of self-love and worthiness. The preemptive body shaming loop is a vicious one to get caught in, but once you start to make small steps towards the opposite, you start to realize how free it feels. How liberating it feels to be your own biggest fan. How wonderful it is to love the body you’re in, to take care of the vehicle you drive around town, to cherish those moments of pride – because lord knows that while we’re all working on it, the world around us encourages those moments to be fleeting.
It’s not just skin. It’s not just exposure. Those three inches of side-boob have come to represent something else to me: what it is to be the woman I strive to be.
I’ve got a challenge for you all: post a photo you LOVE of yourself on Instagram and use the hashtag #WANTyourself in the comments. It could be a selfie, a pic with a friend, maybe even an old shot from one time you felt at your best.
Only rule? It’s gotta be for you and you alone, not what you “think” you “should” post. (I’ll be sharing the aforementioned pic, even though it kinda gives me sweaty palms to do so.) Let’s lead by example and show that feeling worthy is our birthright.
(be sure to tag me – @katiehorwitch – too so I don’t miss it! xo)