April 1, 2020

Vanity Body Plates

A few weeks ago, I was shopping at the Beverly Center when a girl who was maybe 12 years old held up a garment and yelled across the store, “Hey, Mom, what about this?”

“This” was a skimpy red T-shirt with the words “porn star” emblazoned across the chest. I was shocked by the shirt, but even more shocked when her mother breezily brought it up to the register. That’s when I noticed that this mom was wearing her own micro-mini T-shirt with the word “bouncy” written in big, bold letters across her chest.

Walking around Los Angeles, I realized I was practically the only woman who didn’t have a slogan on her boobs. There were suggestive ones like “Tasty” and disturbing ones like “Fight Hunger: Anorexia Chic.” Then I started seeing them on women’s sweatpants — across their behinds, to be exact — things like: “Princess,” “Slut,” “Whore,” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “Eat Me,” “Lick Me,” “Bite Me,” “Boy-Beater” and “Airhead.” While my breasts had no signage and my butt sported the low-key “Levi’s,” everyone from preteens to the premenopausal set seemed to personalize their body parts with tag lines like “Juicy,” “Curvy” and “Slippery When Wet.” It used to be that women worried about panty lines — now they worry about what line to post on the back of their pants.

I didn’t get the point. Were these sexual invitations? Were they crib sheets for illiterate gawkers? My friend, Kevin, said they’re more like “vanity body plates.”

Maybe, but where’s the vanity?

I asked a young woman in a T-shirt that read, “Psycho Bitch” why she’d want to wear that.

“It’s empowering!” she replied, in a tone that left the “I mean, like, duh” hanging in the air.

I guess the others I’ve seen recently are also “empowering” — things like “Easy” “Pop My Cherry,” “Schwing,” “Hormonal” and “Buy Me a Diamond Ring.” Recently, Time magazine reported on Jewish pride T-shirts and panties with pithy power-grams like “Jew Lo,” “Jewcy,” “JAP,” “Meshuggenah,” “Yenta,” and “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”

In a show of sisterhood, I tried to give these slogans the benefit of the doubt — to find some sort of, I don’t know, “ironic hipsterness” to them like, “My Other Butt Is a Porsche” or “If You Can Read This, You’re Too Gross.”

A friend suggested that this phenomenon might be a Richard Pryor-esque political statement — you know, taking back the words of the oppressor. Another mentioned the fact that I’d posted a naked picture of myself on the Web for a magazine assignment, and that, while I ultimately found the whole thing silly, I did experience a sense of, well, empowerment. So why was I so outraged that other generally sensible young women would plaster these messages on their own bodies and feel proud? Why did I care that I couldn’t go five blocks without seeing a woman who advertised herself as promiscuous, spoiled, abusive, ditzy, gossipy, or emotionally unstable — all in the name of “empowerment”?

Maybe because it hit too close to home. These were women like me: mothers and daughters who rail against degrading ads, then plaster them instead on their own bodies. I knew I hit rock bottom when a friend wore a glittery “anal” logo over her butt and for a split-second I thought it was funny, a clever reference to her uptight personality. Would a man ever stoop so low? Not a chance. They know how to advertise their gender: “Buff,” “Brawny,” “Six-Million-Dollar Man.” But can anyone imagine a guy walking around town with the word “anal” plastered across his behind?

Recently, while I was jogging in my plain, baggy sweats, I saw a teenager up ahead whose behind boasted, “Messed Up!” Another girl jogged toward me in a T-shirt with bright purple lettering: “Confused!”

Finally, I thought, truth in advertising.

Lori Gottlieb, a commentator for NPR, is author of the
memoir “Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self” (Simon and Schuster, 2000) and
“Inside the Cult of Kibu: And Other Tales of the Millennial Gold Rush” (Perseus
Books, 2002). Her Web site is www.lorigottlieb.com.