What is Sexy, a social documentary project focusing on the relationship between women, media & society. Jenna interviewed many women & studied various social constructs which showcased what it means to "be a woman" and what it means to "be sexy"; in addition, how these concepts have impacted people on an individual level & on a societal level. Jenna performed 60 minute interviews with each woman & photographed them after. The interviews varied but 3 questions remained the same: 1) What is society's idea of sexy? 2) What is your idea of sexy? 3) Can you show me what that looks like?
The purpose of this project is to expose the unhealthy actions of the media industry, bring forward topics that are usually cast aside & to empower us to do something about it.
What Society Wants
What she wants
When I think of media, I think of the music industry, like rap & hip hop videos. They portray females a certain way & when you’re growing up viewing that material it makes you think, damn I wanna look like that; I wanna be sexy like that.
The image of women they show as sexy, is light skinned, red boned, long pretty hair, slim waist, big butt, big thighs & that’s about it. They want them to be super light skinned; the dark skinned girls aren’t as valued. And fuck, why should I feel less about myself because my skin is darker than the next chic?
The media presents women in such messed up ways. It makes me mad because our young females feel like they have to present themselves in a certain way to be valued & to get approval from a man. When really, it’s up to us as a society, to teach our young men that women are more than just objects.
When I was growing up people were always telling me, you’re fat, you’re fat. So I was always wondering, how can I lose weight or be all these other things. I struggled for a really long time trying to find myself & figure out how to love me for me....Now as an adult, I realize, either you’re gonna like me or you’re not; either way I’m still gonna look like this, regardless of what you want. I’m voluptuous and I’m a big girl, & now I love it…I love everything about it in fact; it keeps me warm at night & I don’t even need a man for that; it’s like...I’m good.
And you know, regardless of what people say, I think the most important thing, is to find yourself sexy.
Media is a really difficult thing to talk about because a lot of the ways media affects us is in ways we don’t think about.
There is a lot of talk about rape and how media influences and perpetuates rape. I was raped from age fourteen to sixteen. The first time it happened, I was in a car on the way home and he stopped in front of my boyfriend’s house and raped me for the first time.
After it happened I became more withdrawn and didn’t want to be around my friends or talk about it. I felt like killing myself, but I couldn’t talk about it with anyone because if you tell someone, you’re immediately put into a white room and expected to tell everyone what happened to you. And if you’re not ready to do that then, just nothing, nothing can happen. You can’t talk about it or do anything about it and you’re basically just on your own. I realized I had zero agency over myself. When people found out what happened to me, they called me a slut for it and stopped talking to me. People would throw things at me in class and were always laughing at me and I felt like if someone said something that was nice, they were just making fun of me. Now, I am not very comfortable with receiving compliments.
When I have told men who I am romantically involved with that I was raped, they always ask me right after if they can do BDSM stuff to me (B: Bondage & Discipline, D: Domination & Submission, M: Sadism & Masochism). Even when I tell them I am not okay with that, they want to choke me and tie me up. This is literally right after they learn I am a rape victim or the next time we are in bed together.
I am always really cautious about this response, for obvious reasons, but also because when you have been raped, your likelihood of being raped again goes way up. I can’t even really explain how bad it feels to get this response from someone that I am becoming intimate with or falling in love with.
When I talk about it, some people stick around because they see me as a victim and see me as somebody they can do these things to. And some people have fantasies about rape and think I will be into it and also think it is a “good” way for me to work through what happened to me.
Ugh…yeah, people have a lot of ideas of how I should work through what happened to me.
Growing up and looking at magazines definitely gave me a pretty specific idea of what it meant to be sexy and beautiful. I was interested in fashion from a very young age. In middle school I started to think about myself in relation to the images and noticed I wasn’t that kind of person...Most of the negative reactions I got from people occurred when I was in high school. I have gradually become more comfortable with fashion and I found it as a way to express myself as an art form...When I was in high school I started wearing different colored lipsticks and I had this blue lipstick...It was an awesome lipstick. I was so excited about it but really nervous to wear it. Then the first time I wore it to school...there was this girl that told me it looked like I had been sucking Smirf dick.
And it was mostly middle school/early high school when I was realizing that I was never really going to be that kind of girl. Like it just wasn’t me. Like I’m not gonna look like those people. And I think that when you’re a little girl looking at those magazines, sometimes you look at these grown women who are really in control of their sexuality, and are so glamorous, and made up, and fashionable, and wealthy, and you look at them and think, oh that’s gonna be me when I grow up; I’m gonna look like that, because they are adult women and I am just a young girl still. I had friends in high school that had eating disorders and really serious body image issues and were definitely affected more than I was by the negative images shown in media. I think a lot of that has to do with my mom, she always raised me to understand that representations of women in the media are not really that true to life. And I’ve always kind of had an understanding of the way images of women are manipulated to portray a certain ideal. So I think that because I had positive messages coming from my family I didn’t feel as bad about myself in comparison.
Growing up and realizing what I do look like and what my interests are and the way I interact with my peers, I just started to realize, I’m not that girl, that’s just not who I am, or who I’ll ever be. I feel comfortable with that now, but it made me feel uncomfortable then and I started losing some of my friends because they wanted to be like the “cool” kids and popular and I was drifting away from them because I was into art and I was a weirdo. It was kind of like losing my friends and then noticing how I looked in relation to the women in the media that made me feel insecure.
If I could change one thing in the media, I think having a wider representation of different types of women in the media is really important, people of all body types, ethnic backgrounds and people with various levels of ability. The fashion industry will always be kind of snobby and have a certain ideal in place….I’d say to my younger self that what you see on television and in magazines is not it in terms of the way women are represented…It is important to just wear what makes you feel comfortable and what makes you feel powerful and also awesome.
When we were young, we were trying to figure out what being a girl was all about.
We are bombarded with sexualized imagery from a very young age and that effects our mentality around sex and what it should be like. Growing up we see in the media this representation before we even have sex, we see sex on tv and in porn and in ads and we see women orgasming. They have specific sounds, facial expressions, body movements and it's really hard for a woman experiencing sex for the first time, to fully let herself go. Since the images of what it's supposed to be like are taking over your brain, making it much harder to achieve orgasm. You're trying to experience what they look like they’re experiencing, instead of just enjoying it and not judging yourself based on what you’ve seen. It gets even more complicated, as you go on in life, if you believe you've never achieved an orgasm since you aren't having the same reaction shown in the media. There is a study on young women who watch porn versus those who don’t. The women who watched porn before they ever had sex were far less likely to reach orgasm than girls who never watched porn before.
The piece I am posing with is a sculpture I made of a female with her legs, arms and head removed so she is just kind of a sectional. She is spread eagle which is an over sexualized posed and the white plaster represents purity before sex and talks about race. If you watch porn, the amount of white females plastered all over the screen is obvious.
Porn isn’t just this thing I study and make work about, it has definitely contributed to how I interact with my partners, my sexuality, how I feel about my body and the way I look. I got into posing nude and doing things just to try and make myself feel better or so that I could become more of the standard that I see with these sexually alluring and erotic women. I wanted to be that attractive and I thought that was the only way to do it because those were the types of images people obsess over the most. It's sick and fucked up and my body was a consequence of the imagery we are flooded with.
I use my past to empower myself now. I make a lot of work about these issues, like the plaster sex-tional. But I truly feel my best when I am messing around in my work shop, making my art, being silly, being free and finding ways to talk about these serious and heavy issues in a way that can be a little bit more light hearted or comical or at least start a conversation about these issues.
Growing up media reinforced how I felt about myself, I never saw on TV the prized character being larger than a size 4. As I matured, I realized I liked working with my hands & tools were empowering. I like knowing that I could build a house if I wanted to. I think about how I’ve seen this in media & it’s usually portrayed with a woman in a bustier blowing out a welding tip, alluding to oral sex. Which trivializes what these women can do because you don’t see them for their skill, you see them as sexual objects. There is more sexiness in a woman actually knowing how to use these things than just a sexy woman posing with them.
Danica Patrick for example is the only female NASCAR driver, when you see her in ads you don’t see her wearing race car clothing like her male counter parts. Instead you see her in Go Daddy commercials, nearly naked & hyper sexualized. While talking about racing they shouldn’t attract viewers by using her body. It focuses on the way she looks instead of her knowledge & skills.
Women are feeding into is this cycle that is powered by the male gaze & reinforced by media. Women shouldn’t have to rely on men for validation, but that is how our society has set things up. Also women can gain confidence in receiving compliments from other women, so it's important women support each other instead of tear each other down. If I could give advice to a younger generation, I would say have self-confidence & believe in yourself. One thing that helped me was knowing about Photoshop & how media is morphed, models don't look like that most of the time & to not feel self-conscious about myself in comparison to something that isn’t 100% real & is definitely not all that’s out there. Don’t shape yourself based on what you think someone else will be attracted to. Don’t shape yourself based on what you think someone else will be attracted to. It’s more important for girls to be powerful, have great minds, great skills, and great kindness than it is to have a beautiful shell.
I always had depression but it became very apparent my sophomore year of high school, after my dad was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. So I really wasn't doing well and I was hospitalized after trying to kill myself. After that my school stopped viewing me as a valuable member of the community. They started suggesting, maybe you shouldn't go here anymore, maybe you should go somewhere else, maybe you don't belong here.
Looking back at my childhood I always felt depressed but I just kind of see it as an undercurrent of my whole life and I never really fit in, physically or otherwise. I was always way taller, I was an only child and my parents treated me like a small adult and a lot of kids were just kids in their families, I was not. That brought a lot of tension between me and other children at a young age. As I grew older I realized I was never gonna be the popular girl so I went on the typical trajectory to be the biggest nerd anybody had ever seen. As I got older, I looked more like people in magazines because I'm tall and blonde, it's like seeing myself in magazines but then not being able to do it as well. Not being as successful as my body type tells me I should be. I mean I don't look like that anymore, but back then it was a weird kind of relationship; it was a combination of things, the media said to be tall and skinny, yet I was an outsider for being tall and skinny and standing out from everyone else. It kind of forced me away from people and more towards books, since books couldn't judge me.
I feel that because of my mental illness, being an artist and being a woman, most of my feelings are discredited and I won't really be talked about seriously until after I'm dead. For example, you don’t hear people talk about women with mental illnesses until they have killed themselves. Or you don’t hear people talk about influential women in general until long after their death, like Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath. So when you asked me, how would society want to view me, I was thinking, just dead. The more you struggle with a mental illness the more people don't want to see you and don't want you visible in this world. And then surprise you become visible once you're gone.
If I could change one thing about our industry, since I am an apparel designer, is to show how bodies are different. I’ve always wanted to make a line of clothing that was accessible to everyone regardless of body type, gender, age or physical ability. Which is lofty and hard to do but it is so important that people see people that look like them, wearing fashion and being represented and respected. It’s so ridiculous that high fashion is reserved for a specified market, for a very rarefied body type. When actually everyone wears clothes, so shouldn’t clothing be up for everyone? I hope that in the future we can see a media that reflects what people actually look like. All we show in fashion magazines is skinny white people wearing pretty clothes, can’t we show more types?
If I could give advice to someone who went through what I went through growing up, I would tell them it’s not important, these types of people, they have a very small view of what the world is and what they view as important. If you have an idea or a goal that’s bigger and more important than all of them, then really what do they matter? You may never reach the kinds of things you want, if you’re stuck on their level.
My mom sent me to two fat camps. I was teased at both, but Camp Shane was the worst. I’ve never felt more like a prisoner for being overweight. My size affected my self-esteem the most growing up since we’re taught as women, that we must be thin...And some days I struggle with how I look, but in the grand scheme of things I am happier now than I was when I was thin.
I also weighed myself everyday; I would measure every part of my body & pinpoint things I wanted to change. I would draw, like a plastic surgeon on myself, get rid of this, put this here, take this off. Why aren’t we taught to love our bodies; why aren’t they just okay the way they are? Plus, things are always changing...at one point the ideal size was Nicole Richie a double zero & now it’s Kim Kardashian with curves & a tiny waist...We are always shaming somebody somewhere based on trends. Why are we shaming anybody at all? A healthy image should be more than an ideal certain body type; all body types are beautiful.
I looked at so many magazines growing up & it’s definitely a form of brainwashing. I was obsessed with Hilary Duff, she was skinny & perfect, I wanted to be like her. I know a lot of girls want to be like the celebrities & have to be told by a guy they are pretty before they believe it. We set ourselves up for a standard that doesn’t exist & a lot of things society idealizes as perfect are fake...I think if more people talked about these issues, it would be really helpful. Now if I could give advice to a younger generation, I would say: don’t care what people say about you, at the end of the day you are with you. You start off in this world with you & you leave this world with you. So make the best relationship you can, with yourself. And lastly, it’s believing your sexy that makes you sexy.
There is a huge difference between the clothes I wear and the comments I receive in America versus Pakistan. In Pakistan, I always have to be covered completely. They expect me to cover my head everyday, I always try not to and get yelled at for it. Whereas when I'm here (America) I can wear whatever I want and do whatever I want, then I feel more comfortable being myself. Although here, people will cat call me, even if I’m not wearing something revealing. I have had men ask me what my breast size is randomly on the street. That makes me really uncomfortable. So that’s what I like more about Pakistan, it's such a conservative environment so no one can really ask you that, but I also wouldn’t be walking on the street there. So there are ups and downs to both. I also love the clothes in Pakistan, they are really traditional and beautiful but there are way too many restrictions. I love red, its my favorite color, I think everyone looks good in red no matter what, a woman or a man. It just looks great! Pretty much red is the color of all the western clothes I own.
In terms of what my culture and Pakistani society considers beautiful, that would be traditional Pakistani clothes for formal events, where everything is covered, even your hair. Whenever I wear stuff like that in Pakistan, everyone says I look great, but when I wear pants they sigh and say 'ugh girls these days'… it's a look of disappointment. Parents wondering, did we raise our child right? Just because she isn’t completely covered and has on pants. My parents understand I dress a little differently here to fit in but they don’t know that I wear sleeveless dresses, they would never be okay with that. The fashion shows in Pakistan are with dresses that touch the ground and here you can be naked.
When I came to America I was still very careful about what I wore and was pretty covered up. After awhile, I started to dress more westernized, it felt better, I felt more free and comfortable. I grew up back and forth between Pakistan and England so I saw the culture in both and the differences, but my parents didn’t allow me to participate in the English media and I didn’t ever get to look at magazines. Which made it even more interesting to me. What was depicted in Pakistani imagery was always super skinny, super tall girls and that’s pretty much it. With me, I’m not that tall, I don’t care, I’m fine with that. The problem with models is they create this stereotype that everyone has to be a stick figure, which is just not true at all. Look around you, everyone looks different, and that’s OK! I knew I couldn’t do direct comparisons of myself to the bodies in media because I am nowhere close to that and I never will be. I mean, I didn’t accept that fast, it took time, but eventually I came to terms with it. And I have larger boobs and each time they grew bigger I would cry and research breast reductions. I mean in the fashion industry you mostly see girls with a cup size B. Since I have such a large chest, it makes me uncomfortable because people always stare at me, especially when I am running and they are bouncing all around. There aren’t many large breasted women featured in fashion magazines and that made me insecure about my size. In Pakistan they would phrase it like, Nashra is kind of heavy from the top, like it’s a bad thing. And people back home are so skinny bones are popping out, they are not naturally meant to be like that, they starve themselves. In Pakistan it's ALL about whose thinner and who has the lightest skin. Whose the skinniest and fairest person. I am considered very fair skinned in my society and automatically people are like woah she is so attractive, just because I have lighter skin. I personally don’t like pale skin, I like to be tan, while everyone else will put on fair and lovely, a chemical which lightens up your skin, and on the flip side in America people will go to tanning beds. It's funny how media shapes what a society things is pretty. For some reason they idealize western looks in that way, where they want light hair, light eyes, light skin, but they shun western culture for being too revealing in terms of their clothes. It’s your looks that make you a good bride, your weight and skin color, nothing else. How you get married over there, is by an arranged marriage, so some woman sees you at an event and call your parents and say, “I’m interested in your daughter for my son or nephew, etc.” even though she knows nothing about you, because its all based off of appearances. I have always tried to be different and fought against stuff I disagree with; I think that’s a better way to live life than to just be a puppet.
I lived in a super conservative small town and in the south the women are called southern belles, but I was kind of never like that. What influenced my self worth were my parents, which I think is how most people base their self worth.
Growing up, I was always the black sheep. My dad put a lot of pressure on my mom about the way she looked and she projected that onto me. For a long time I based my self worth only on how I looked. I never felt good enough. If I lost weight, I would get texts from my parents both saying, “I’m so proud of you”. It took me a long time to realize that’s not really a reason to be proud of someone.
The idea of sexy is always changing. In the 90’s, it was being like Victoria Beckham, very thin. Before that, it was Marilyn Monroe. The media presents it and changes it frequently and people are constantly trying to follow these trends.
Now, instead of chasing the trends, I try really hard to accept myself and have a relationship with my body that’s not dependent on giving ownership to anyone else except for myself.
If you want to look at what media portrays as “sexy”, just look at any fucking Cosmopolitan; it gives you examples on how you should present yourself, when in reality it should be more about, what do you feel comfortable in? Being sexy is more about self-confidence than what you are wearing. I feel sexy when I’m getting dressed and when I’m wearing a robe. I feel sexy when I’m putting makeup on because I love makeup; I think its fun and very glamorous, especially the process.
My favorite quote is by Tina Fey, and I think it’s very relevant to the topics we are discussing, she says, “…add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful. Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet and the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine year old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian who as we know was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”
I think that being a woman in our society, no matter how progressive people are, being aware that women are thought of as less is an issue that needs to be addressed. I do love my parents, I want to say that, but they have serious fucking lenses that totally distort the way they view the world and distorted how I see the world.
I don’t want to get into super huge issues of sexism, but it’s important that men are aware when they’re catcalling or other things like that, it makes us unequal. It’s important for men to recognize that their defenses and excuses further downgrade us, the “I was just kidding, chill out” or “you’re being so over dramatic” or “quit acting like a girl”.
The mannequin limbs are meant to compare things that are man made, consumer created, artificial, plastic and perfect, versus the real human body. What is the reality of this woman’s existence? What are these parts and why is she foundling them? Could this leg be a section off of a sex doll? Is it a sex doll that came in the mail for her husband? And she asks herself, if he doesn’t want me and he wants this plastic body, then maybe I want it too. Then there is jealousy and feeling like you aren’t good enough, you cannot fulfill your husbands’ desires, he is searching elsewhere. You then have a desire to become what it is that he craves, so hopefully he won’t need anyone else but you. So you obsess over it, idolize it and try to be and do whatever you can to become it; you’re drooling at the idea of becoming this thing that he wants, because then he will want you again. And at the end of it all, what does that say about our society and the man who would prefer a plastic sex doll to his wife. And what does it say about peoples’ ability to get off to something that isn’t even real?
The first images that come to mind when I think of sexy are revealing clothing & women with photo shopped bodies being used as objects. I was raised opposite to this, I was taught that modesty was more important & showing skin was bad. This worked out for me because I had big insecurities about showing my skin anyway. I have hyper-pigmentation, so whenever I get hurt my skin gets dark & it leaves a mark. I try to cover up the scars because I don’t want anyone to see them. I always look at my peers or magazines with celebrities & see that they all have perfectly clear skin. The first thing I notice when I meet someone is their skin, I think when you’re insecure about something that’s what you focus on & notice in others.
When I was growing up, my mom’s friends would try to compliment me, but they always told me I was too skinny & I should eat more, even though I ate a lot. This made me feel self-conscious about my body, that how I look naturally isn’t good or beautiful & I should change it because I was too skinny. Which is completely contradictory from what the media tells us. The media says you can never be skinny enough, it portrays women who are so skinny their hipbones & ribcages are showing, but they are the ideal. And here I am, being told I am too skinny. These types of contradictions make growing up & accepting your body difficult & confusing. Nobody is teaching us to love our bodies how they are naturally, even though this should be the teaching, imagine how much happier everyone would be if they were taught this from the beginning. And I don’t even know what I’m the most insecure about because I’m confused. The media tells you to be skinny, but everyone in my life tells me I’m too skinny. Sometimes I think I am beautiful & sometimes I don’t. I wish more women thought they were beautiful & didn’t have to deal with all these mixed messages coming from media & society. I wish women could see they are beautiful without anyone else having to tell them first.
I feel the most confident when I am making my own Cosplay outfits, creating characters & acting them out. I get to live out something I wouldn’t normally get to do on a day-to-day basis. For me it’s a form of empowerment because I feel more self-assured when I step into different characters’ shoes. It gives me strength, if a character I Cosplay is strong, then I feel strong, and I try to hold on to those feelings after I leave that character. I was taught growing up that I should be more of the traditional standard, like a traditional Chinese dress for example. They wore these dresses because back then it was more beautiful to be round, that was the standard. So the dress doesn’t even show your waist; it’s based on the size of your bust & the dress just flows straight down from there. Growing up, modesty was such a big deal, so the traditional dress fits that ideal & the Cosplay is more about me being free to behave & dress how I want, allowing me to reveal more skin if I wanted to.
Jenna uses published research, data and statistics to further her understanding of the media and its impact on women, self-esteem, societal expectations, actions and interactions. With her own life experience and a statistical understanding of what causes harm, she then studies specific trends, marketing ploys and advertisements in the media which are directed at women and have negative impact. With a goal and a purpose, she creates media that has a positive impact on women and the way people view women. She creates artwork and imagery that exposes certain information to the public, believing that change cannot occur unless people are aware and educated about the problem. In this project, she brings awareness to these topics by finding others who talk directly about their experiences being a woman. After an extensive search for subjects, each woman is interviewed and asked a set of questions and each woman bravely reveals deep and personal life stories. This discussion between each person and Jenna, which is recorded with permission, creates an unbelievable dialog that reveals a vast range of topics and issues. After each of the one-on-one interviews, which is based largely around the woman's personal life stories and things that have impacted how she feels about herself inside and out. Jenna asks these concluding questions: 1) What is society's idea of sexy? 2) What is your idea of sexy? 3) Can you show me what that looks like?
This project displays stories from 15 different women, 30 varying GIF animations to communicate different ideals, 4 hand built miniature rooms about a young girl’s upbringing, an integrated video which speaks to the audience as they walk through the interactive experience and a twenty-five page thesis paper detailing information and topics discussed in the project.