the body of a (female) blogger

In reading other women blogger’s responses to the disappointingly stupid piece, Womanspace, I ended up watching the video, Perils of Blogging as a Woman under a Real Name, and generally reading about women’s experience as bloggers, especially about science.

While I deliberately limit the personal stuff I put on the blog, like Kate Clancy (whose blog, Context and Variation is AWESOME), I view my own life and experience as inextricable from my work. This post is one example of that.

See, a number of bloggers told stories about being told they were hot, and that their hotness contributed to their legitimacy or interestingness as writers.

My own experience has been being told that I’m NOT attractive and therefore it’s not a surprise that I’m wrong.

Which. I mean.

In reality, it’s the same phenomenon, two different version of having our voices minimized because of our bodies, our appearances.


I mean.

Suppose you got to choose: you can have your voice minimized by people’s perception of you as attractive or you can have your voice minimized by people’s perception of you as unattractive.

Yeah… so… I had this really complicated internal reaction, like bodies don’t matter and haters gonna hate, and at the same time I wanna be a pretty girl too! and is it a coincidence that these women are this successful and happen to be the pretty ones? and will I fail to advance professionally because I fail to conform to conventional standards of beauty and femininity?

(This is me officially hoping that no one decides to comment, “But gosh Emily, you’re pretty!” My attractiveness or lack thereof isn’t relevant to my blog content, which is exactly the point!)

I have had the good fortune of always feeling like I was being taken seriously by my mentors in the academic world – even at times when, in retrospect, I didn’t necessarily deserve it. My appearance and my gender never entered in to it. It is a gift I try to pass on to my own students, to hear their voices without assessing it in terms of their bodies or gender display. Because my looks were not my identity, I viewed them as irrelevant, and nothing in my academic experience made me feel otherwise.

Until I started blogging.

I put a photo on the blog because a friend told me that it helps people recognize that there’s an individual human being sitting in her living room writing these posts, that there’s a face behind the typeface, if you will. A person.

And according to a few anonymous folks on the interwebs, who comments don’t make it past the trash bin, I am an ugly cunt, so no wonder I’m wrong about whatever it is I’m wrong about.

And what I want to know is: if I had shorter hair and were wearing blue instead of pink, and had stubble, would I be told I’m an ugly motherfucker so THAT’S why I’m wrong?

I doubt it. I think my appearance is a justification for dismissing me only because I’m female.

And here’s another complicated feeling:

Have you noticed the phenomenon that most of the women “sexperts” you see in the media are thin, with long shiny hair, big eyes, and a pretty smile? I find myself thinking, “Is it that the people who know the most about sex or are the most effective educators also happen to be conventionally attractive?” Or, “I wonder if the sexperts who are least likely to disturb Big Pharma happen to be conventionally attractive, and what causal mechanism might be at work there?…”

Not to say that pretty, thin, young, long-haired, big-eyed women can’t also be outstanding researchers and educators! But I can’t help thinking that the reason they have the gig is not that they’re especially good at the job, but instead because they’re especially rich masturbation material.

And I feel VERY BAD about the fact that I have these thoughts. It feels totally unfeminist for me to judge them in this way. I actually know a number of them in person, went to school with them, and know that they’re genuinely good at what they do.

An example of someone I don’t know: Take Cara Santa Maria, over at Huff Post’s “Talk Nerdy to Me.” Remember my three criteria for writing about sex science: good science, good prose, good advice. Her’s is perfectly fine science and perfectly fine, if a bit dull, prose. She doesn’t so much do the advice part, so no worries there. Her credentials, too, are unfaultable. And yet I find myself thinking, “She would not have this gig if she weighed 30 pounds more, were 10 years older, or had a less feminine, symmetrical face.”

And then I think, “Is this just jealousy about not being so thin/pretty? Is it professional jealousy that she has a gig like that and I don’t? Is it TRUE? Is it MEAN? Can it be true and mean at the same time? Isn’t it just to be expected that the media will select for conventional beauty?”

So basically I have A Lot Of Feelings about physical appearance and being a sex educator in the public sphere. It feels very complicated and I don’t know what the solution is.

29 responses to “the body of a (female) blogger

  1. What a timely post! I’m currently figuring out if I want to pursue Sex Ed as an eventual career (read: do I want to go get a PhD or another Masters since the only thing I’ve done related to sex-ed is write a thesis), and I’m glad you wrote this. You make some great points that I never would have thought about!

  2. I’ll give you some advice that one of my favorite writers have given me Time and time again. One that I’ve come to trust greatly, and love reading as soon as I get the e-mail.


    And joy.

    You display both of these, at least to me, as I read, and it makes your writing come alive. It shows your passion for the subject.
    And I’m a guy.

    That’s all from me.


    Your words, they are beautiful to me.

  3. Thank you for your honesty – greatly appreciated. you are one of my heroes and I have never met you. Thank you.

  4. I think conventionally sexy women are less threatening when they talk about sex because since they are better masturbation material as you call it, you get the feeling that they’re talking about sex for you. So it’s all about your pleasure as a viewer. When unconventionally sexy women talk about sex, if you happen to be someone who likes conventionally sexy ladies, you don’t get turned on, and your pleasure is off the equation. So it follows they must be doing it for their own. And that’s scary for that kind of people.

    It’s the same reason that type of people are mean to unconventionally sexy ladies when they go out to dance and they’re having a wild time. She’s enjoying it, they’re not, who the hell does she think she is to go after her own pleasure without doing a thing for theirs.

    Also now that I think about it, maybe the problem is that they *do* get turned on anyway, and it makes them question their notions of beauty. And that’s very uncomfortable for that kind of people.

    • I don’t know who you are, but I love you for that.

      “…who the hell does she think she is to go after her own pleasure without doing a thing for theirs.” !!

      People with little minds don’t like to have to encounter things they can’t fit into their neat box of perfection. The are entitled to their opinion, and we are more than entitled to tell them to fuck off because it’s not welcome around us.

    • I think both of these are really important ideas. Sometimes it happens that when you talk about sex in public, people view you as more “sexually available” for whatever reason, and certainly as more comfortable with your sexuality than most people. And how threatening is that, that a woman with fat on her belly or whatever should be OKAY with herself and her sexuality? Jeepers.

  5. I think if you are female, you will be given shit either way. It’s just a different variety of shit if you are “attractive” than if you, say, wear glasses and are “fugly” like me. Either way you are being put down for being known as being female on the Internet….which is why I’m not smacking my picture on the front page of any of my blogs. I don’t want them to remember I am a female person so much.

  6. Have you read about #mencallmethings, Emily? It ties in a lot with what you’re talking about.

    I think the calling people ugly is very much related to misogynists’ anger at women taking up public space, and then using things our culture shames women for (ugliness, fat, sluttiness) to insult them and hopefully drive them out of the public space. It’s not about how you look; it’s about trying to stop you from speaking out.

  7. First, you ARE sexy and attractive to me and I’m sure many men. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. + you have real brains and that is worth much more than passing beauty. Remember Henry Kissinger said it was better to marry someone he could have a good chess match with in his old age.

    Secondly, TV goes for the plastic beauty with an ability to speak without saying “ah” and “you know”. Brains come in third place. They go for the soundbite expert. Also, getting those gigs is very hard work. Your time may come too.

    Lastly, I like that you have a picture on this site. It personalizes the blog as we can imagine you giving a lecture on the subjects. Keep it up.

  8. Okay, I’ll bite. Emily, the pictures I’ve seen of you are just the ones on this blog. So I stalked you on Google images and found a few more pictures.

    So, Emily, FWIW, I think you’re a regular-looking woman, like 90% of the women I see every day. Nothing to be ashamed of. And not very relevant.

    But, you are smart, and knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, nay, passionate, and you share this openly with the world right here. You stimulate our minds, you make us think and look at things in new ways. All this is what “contributes to [your] legitimacy or interestingness” as a blogger.

  9. Pingback: Sex Educators and the Politics of Attractiveness | My Sex Professor: Sexuality Education

  10. 30 something and breaking up

    I have had the good fortune of always feeling like I was being taken seriously by my mentors in the academic world – even at times when, in retrospect, I didn’t necessarily deserve it.

    Is it possible that chivalry was at play during the times you felt you were taken seriously but didn’t deserve it? Perhaps they gave you a little extra leeway because of your gender?

    Or am I getting the wrong end of the stick here?

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, but by using the word chivalry I take it that you’re assuming all/most of her mentors were men and she was getting leeway because she is a woman. What if that isn’t the case? I just don’t know what you’re basing your idea off of.

      • 30 something and breaking up

        I wasn’t basing my ideas off of anything, I was asking for elaboration through questions (hence the “?” appearing twice).

        Unfortunately, women in some cases are not taken seriously because of their gender yet in other cases women are perhaps given special benefits because of their gender. It isn’t right, but its true.

  11. Pharm Sci Grad

    To so many (maybe not so many, but damn if it doesn’t feel like it’s a lot at times) humans, women aren’t really people like men are people. And THAT’S the problem. The appearance of a woman is mentioned is almost any instance of public discussion of a woman’s opinion. This is most certainly irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and yet there is no way for a woman to appear that is not worth noting in our culture. If you’ll forgive an old link, this is what I mean:

    Now I have judged women (often in the past, but I likely still do, despite my best intentions, from time to time) who have bodies/appearances which conform to American beauty standards. I’m so sick of it now. I can’t lay a single bit of blame at the feet of a woman who conforms to survive, or even to thrive. Would I like it if more non-conformists were to do well? Absolutely. Do I begrudge the sucess of a single conventionally attractive woman. Hell. No.

    The price such a woman pays each day, for existing as an object approved by and assumed to exist for the male gaze, is too high of a price for me. No one is policed, by men and women alike, as strongly as a woman whose appearance conforms and is sucessful. Look at our tabloids if you’ve any doubt of that.

    These days, I don’t know if you could pay me to be more conventionally attractive because all of the baggage that comes with it just isn’t worth it. I’ve quit many “beauty practices” for that very reason, and I’m quite lucky that doing so won’t cost me my livelihood. There are women out there for whom doing something like I have done is not an option. I sympathize with them now.

    I wish we lived in a meritocracy, but we don’t. If it’s not how you look, it’s who you know. Or something else less related skills and more related to luck. So, for me, the solution has been to forgive myself for buying into to all of the things my culture has taught me (about women, merit, sucess, and so on) and to spend as much of my time as possible on those things which give me joy. Then, even if I’m not recognized for doing good work, I enjoyed doing my best. Retraining my brain has been difficult, but letting go of even some of those feelings of jealousy has been a tremendous relief.
    Sorry for the long comment, but this (obviously) struck a cord with me.

    • Can I just delete my post and replace it with this?

    • “So, for me, the solution has been to forgive myself for buying into to all of the things my culture has taught me (about women, merit, sucess, and so on) and to spend as much of my time as possible on those things which give me joy.” ah that is refreshing. As we enter the marketplace that passes for community, we are caught up in whatever current our culture presents as “desirable” for women. Beauty is a commodity that has always been bought and sold and so we long to be rich. Those who match the current beauty paradigm do have an un-arguable leg up.

  12. First, I want to say that I enjoy your blog very much. Regarding the conventionally pretty woman who gets the tv job. It’s so tempting for me to target her, personally, for her appearance; but in reality, it’s the media, and ultimately the audience demand that allows the conventional beauty to get the job over a regular looking woman.

    Personally, I love and find the unconventional attractive. Even what we are attracted to is a matter of fickle taste, meaning, that preference changes all the time. An example is that I’ve always found long haired men very attractive and sexy. Another necessary ingredient was massive muscles and tight butt. Fast forward to the man I actually married, and appearance-wise he’s totally opposite…. and I find this attractive and sexy. Seriously don’t know why, but I’ve come to appreciate his very specific body lines and I’m drawn to him sexually.

  13. I can appreciate what you’re going through, Emily. I’ve worked with a number of sex educators over the years, at both ends of the attractiveness spectrum and quite a bit in the middle of the bell curve, too. They have almost universally complained about how they’re prejudged, mistreated, and called names when they didn’t conform.

    Ironically, however, it isn’t always men who level these problems at them: I recall a book signing I helped with by an author and sex educator who shall remain nameless. This woman was reasonably attractive on her own and unadorned, but when she did public appearances she increased her attractiveness through hair, makeup and clothing selection to the point where it was difficult to recognize her as the same woman. In any case, she was signing and a middle-aged woman with a chip on her shoulder came up, slammed her book down, and then accused the educator of using her “stunning good looks” to flirt with her husband, complained that the “beautiful people” didn’t have any sexual problems, and then challenged her academic credentials by suggesting that she’d slept her way through school and then again to get her book published. And she hadn’t even read the book.

    I’m a professional marketer in an industry where physical appearance is everything — but the same marketing rules that apply to my industry apply to just about every other one. When it comes to the public marketplace, physical appearance matters. It doesn’t always matter in a conventional sense — hence Dr. Ruth’s success, for example — but if you don’t have a certain amount of stage presence, charisma, and charm then you might as well be just another dusty academic, as far as the public is concerned, and they will respond accordingly. The fact is, people factor the physical appearance of the spokesman into their buying decision. Period. If the buying decision involves taking advice or buying a book, then how the author is presented can be a make-or-break moment. It isn’t always a quest for beauty, however, but more of an issue of trust.

    It could be argued (and I do) that a less-than-gorgeous sex educator is to most people far more approachable than a a pretty blonde with bedroom eyes and a $100 manicure, all else being equal. More approachable means more effective. And more approachable also means you are more likely to be considered trustworthy by your readers. That’s a big deal — because a pretty face and a product you can’t trust actually turns that big ol’ positive — blonde bombshell — into a negative — “I’ve been had yet again by a pretty face! When will I learn?” that fosters resentment and reduces their chance of a second purchase dramatically.

    To illustrate, I recently reviewed a book by one of your colleagues, one with her picture plastered on the front with more than a suggestion of bedroom eyes. She’s a pretty woman, in my professional opinion as an objectifier of women. The book, however, was tepid, tame, and horribly one-sided, it lacked any real science and while it was amusingly written, the humor within was hopelessly condescending to her intended audience. The glamorous picture on its cover became a mocking symbol of her lack of competency to me. For while her photo was certainly a factor in my purchasing equation, my satisfaction with the experience was poor and the photo merely made me feel like a chump who got played. I’ll never buy another one of her books, and the experience added to the subconscious idea in my head that pretty women make lousy sex therapists. While I know intellectually this is not true, emotionally that’s the way it feels. And people make their buying decisions based on emotions far more than intellect.

    When you turned from academia to blogging, you effectively entered the marketplace and therefore your personal appearance, charisma and stage presence — those elements called “showmanship” — will now be on display for your audience. If you’re good at it, then the emphasis on your personal appearance will diminish as your reputation grows. If you’re bad at showmanship, then your foray into the public marketplace will be fraught with challenges. The difference in expectations between an academic audience and a popular audience is vast. The accepted marketing conventions are very different for both, and an imperfect understanding of that can lead to a lot of frustration. That doesn’t mean you have to glam yourself out every time you appear in public, or get professional head shots done, or spend four hours a week at the gym, or investing in cosmetic surgery and a $500 stylist — but it does mean you have to face the raw and often brutal reactions of the public to your appearance, and make corrections to your presentation accordingly if you want to be a commercial success.

    Good luck — and great post.

  14. Emily, Thanks for your bravery in writing this. I will say that on the ‘other side’ is something I call the Elle Woods Problem. Yes, I’m pretty. Always have been, even growing up as a hand-me-down-clad tomboy. I “came out” as a pretty girl after college and it has helped me as a professional sex educator tremendously. But it also leads to overt professional skepticism of my qualifications–which are top fucking notch–my intelligence, the extent to which I truly deserve my position. Does being attractive help? You betcha. But I constantly have to demonstrate that being pretty and being smart aren’t mutually exclusive and that an interest in sex from an academic perspective is not indicative of what you call ‘sexual availability.’

  15. I’m sorry if I am getting too personal perhaps but I have been reading about women bloggers and the threat of sexual violence / violence in general. Can you comment a bit more on your experiences as a sexuality educator in the public sphere? I’d like to hear your opinion on this issue. Thank you.

  16. Pingback: To participate more than I consume | Emily Nagoski :: sex nerd ::

  17. Any commenter who would call you ugly is probably an adolescent male, with the anxieties and narrow-mindedness typical of adolescence. Try to ignore them.

    Pretty is as pretty does.

    Beauty is both fleeting and culture bound. Marilyn Monroe couldn’t make it a model these days, being neither properly ‘plus-size’ nor rail skinny. In certain cultures, you’d be entirely too skinny to be considered beautiful.

    In my book, the combination of your smile and the obvious intelligence of your writing are extremely attractive. Go sex nerd!

  18. Pingback: more variation on objectification | Emily Nagoski :: sex nerd ::

  19. I’m kind of in awe of this post. More specifically, I’m in awe of how uncomfortable this made me feel. However, let me clarify what I mean by uncomfortable: I’m male, I’m 25, and I generally conform to male standards of attractiveness. Therefore, I’ve never really taken into account how much someone’s (most particularly, women’s) looks play into the perception of knowledgability outside of the acdemic sphere. The reason that this makes me uncomfortable is due to a bit of guilt about how much I’ve taken for granted in such a male-centric society.

    So, all I can say is kudos to you, your blog, and keep being great at what you do (because in my opinion, you’re doing amazing). Those what use ad hominem arguements to attempt to challenge your authority and knowledge on the subject merely show how little they understand what you’re talking about.

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