San Diego On a recent Saturday, I visited the jam-packed sands of Pacific Beach. The constant breeze tempered the sun's rays and made the day ideal. Like bees busying themselves with their honeycomb, these sun-worshippers busied themselves with recreation -- beer, tanning, horseshoes. The tanned flesh of the toned twentysomething crowd was dotted here and there with bits of ink and metal, belly-button piercings and tattoos having slid from roguishness into trendiness. Like a drone, I weaved my way through the buzzing crowd, searching for a queen bee who would give me her perspective into the feminism of the new millennium -- and in particular, how it manifested itself in her own body image.
My first attempt was with a group of youngsters -- still in high school, barely old enough to test the more political waters of womanhood. Drue, 16, blissfully glossed over the distinction -- whatever it may be -- between "feminist" and "feminine." When I asked after the definition of a feminist, she replied, "Being in tune with women, being involved in your looks and the way your image is with people. I'm not really one. I want myself to look good, but I don't take all hours of the day on my looks."
As it happened, only one of the 17 women I spoke with declared herself a feminist with any kind of conviction. Most said they were not, usually citing a lack of political drive. A few wallowed in the mushy middle, saying they supported "equality" and "equal pay for equal work" -- the only issue mentioned with any regularity. All said they wanted to get married, and all but one said they wanted to have children.
I followed Drue's lead -- discussing looks and image -- and inquired after her bikini: black and white zebra-print with red trim. What had been her criteria in selecting it? "I need something that covers my butt, because they're making bathing suits that are nice and skinny and don't cover much. I like to buy bright colors, because it makes me look tan, but I'd rather have guys look at my face than my body. I mean, I don't love my body. There are things that I wish were smaller, or bigger." What? "My boobs, like everyone. But I'd rather guys look at my face, because you can tell more about a person from their face."
I turned to the more slightly built Erinne, 17, and asked about her own body image. "If I could have any body, I would be tall. I wouldn't have to be really skinny, but toned. I would like to have bigger boobs, because I think clothing would look better on me if I had a fuller chest." Do you like to be looked at by guys? "Yeah. Most girls do. It's flattering, self-assuring, and just kind of fun. But there's different kinds of guys. There's guys that drive around and catcall you and are nasty -- that's gross. Or there are guys that just come and talk to you and have a natural conversation. That's kind of the way I like to be noticed."
I pushed a little. What about girls who show themselves off, perhaps prompting the catcalls from the "nasty boys." "It makes me feel bad for [those girls]. And it's bad for guys, because the guys will be like, 'Oooh, too bad you're not like that.' They get an image of the perfect woman, and then we have to live up to that. It makes us feel worse about ourselves, and that's not how we should feel. We should feel comfortable with our bodies."
As I moseyed down the beach, I zeroed in on two attractive, bikini-clad sunbathers. Both were blond; both were endowed with the height and chest that Erinne longed for. Neither considered herself a feminist. Christina, 26, spoke first. "I guess a feminist is someone who stands up for women's rights and issues. I'm probably not one. I'm kind of old-fashioned. I don't believe women should be barefoot and pregnant; I believe in equality and whatnot. But I'm not like a real political person. I work, and I'm independent and single, but when it comes time to get married, I want to have kids and marry someone who can take care of us."
Erika, 27, echoed some of Christina's sentiments. "I don't consider myself a feminist, because I'm not actively involved in feminist issues. I have my own beliefs, but I don't make a point of going out and voicing my opinion or making a difference in those issues." I couldn't imagine that either of these beauties would wish for different bodies, but Christina was not absolutely content. "I'd like to have a tighter ass, a tighter stomach -- all the things you get from going to the gym." Erika merely shrugged, "I'd like to be a little more fit, but I don't have any serious issues about how I would like my body to be."
I turned to Christina: what do you want men to notice about your body? "My boobs."
To Erika: What do men think of your body? "I don't know; that's a hard question."
Christina was incredulous. "That's not a hard question!"
"I know, but to say it out loud... Yeah, they like it. I mean, I would just never say that."
I asked what seemed an easy question -- would you rather be smart and homely or dumb and pretty? "Fortunately," answered Christina, "we're lucky enough to have both. I can't say. I wouldn't want to be not pretty or to be stupid." Erika thought for a moment. "Beauty is on the outside. It doesn't last forever. So I guess I'd rather be smart and homely -- but that's if I had to choose."
Twenty feet down the beach, Vicki -- 30, voluptuous, busty -- answered in a heartbeat. "Smart and homely, because I'd rather have men respect me for my brains. Guys stare at my chest when I'm talking to them instead of my eyes. If I could change something about my body, I'd get rid of my big boobs. I think some women don't understand what it's like to have big boobs. I like to play sports, and I have to wear a regular bra and a sports bra to jog. It's like, 'Why bother?' You can have pretty breasts at a 34 B." As for the girls who show it all, she says, "Hey, if you've got the body, show it. If I had the body, I'd show it."