Our Bodies, Our Hell: How Modern American Sexism Weaponizes Women’s Bodies 

It is no secret that American culture is misogynistic—but the central role women’s bodies play in maintaining the sexist status quo is too often overlooked and understated. 

We examine issues like revenge porn, reproductive justice, sexual violence, gendered dress codes and heightened standards of female beauty in isolation—without paying adequate attention to the cacophony of chauvinistic clamor they collectively create in the lives of modern American women and girls. 

When taken together and viewed through a common lens, the patriarchal picture they paint becomes uncomfortably clear: Our bodies are our biggest liability, and no woman is safe.

Weaponizing Women’s Bodies in the Digital Age of Internet and Cell Phones

In this digital age, revenge porn has emerged as a convenient tool for scorned lovers to dress their victims down.  Democratic Congresswoman Katie Hill resigned late last year after controversy erupted around her extramarital affair with a staffer and her estranged husband’s unauthorized release of her nude photographs. 

While anyone, regardless of gender, is at risk of falling prey to this modern innovation in sexual warfare, women are especially vulnerable to the devastating and disparaging effects of this phenomenon.  Internet culture mirrors and reinforces inequities that exist within the dominant culture.  In other words, American culture is misogynistic—so the internet not only reflects this sexism; it is often used to perpetuate it. 

Sexism is sickeningly centered on and intertwined with women’s bodies because fixating on women’s physical form is an easy way to objectify and dehumanize us.  When women are viewed and portrayed as less than human, then—as Hill’s experience so aptly illustrates—not even the most privileged and powerful among us can escape being treated as such.  

This, coupled with a society that has become increasingly beholden to buzzing cell phones, have helped make the misappropriation of private, intimate photos a popular past-time for those seeking to shame, humiliate and punish their victims. 

At a time when photos can be snapped and publicly disseminated at a moment’s notice—with or without the subject’s knowledge—women’s privacy and bodily integrity have never been more ripe for the patriarchal picking. The internet and its accompanying technology have made us vulnerable to a new era of emotional and psychological abuse and physical exploitation.  The potential for public shame and humiliation suffered by the modern day Hester Prynne is no longer confined to just her puritanical neighbors—it’s open to the world.

Revenge porn is merely the most modern means of positioning women’s bodies as primary instruments of our own oppression.  Denying our human right to reproductive self-determination and bodily autonomy is anything but a contemporary invention. It is modern in that it persists to the present day, but it may well be the oldest play in the patriarchal playbook.  If women do not even have agency over the physical frameworks of our “selves,” we have nothing, let alone social, economic, and political power. It should not be a request our government grants us or a social privilege bestowed upon us—but a birthright.  

Anti-Abortion Legislation and the War on Women’s Bodies

I do not think men have ever known such an abiding, culturally-imposed and socially-sanctioned denial—nor do I believe they would ever tolerate the same.  Tolerance is the antithesis of anti-choice societies and governments. This is why reproductive injustice has accompanied some of the most authoritarian regimes. 

As Gloria Steinem writes in her 2019 book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Rebellion

“Among (Hitler’s) first acts were to padlock family planning clinics and to declare abortion a crime against the state.  Punishment was prison and hard labor for the woman, who could then be forced to bear children, and death for the doctor.”

The Trump administration has been dubbed one of a new crop of authoritarian-style governments to rise to power on the modern world stage.  Passage of draconian abortion legislation has become a cornerstone of Trump-era demagoguery.  From so-called “heartbeat bills” to calls for the death penalty for abortion patients and providers, state legislatures across the country have sent clear signals that they see Trump’s newly conservative-leaning Supreme Court as a window of opportunity to “rule out” Roe v. Wade.  

Trump is not just playing fast and loose with reproductive rights on “the bench”—he is honing his executive game as well.  The Trump administration implemented a rule denying federal family planning money to organizations that provide abortion care or referrals and reinstated a similar rule, known as the “global gag rule,” that extends to any international, nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. family planning funding.  Although reimplementing the global gag rule has been a routine practice of modern Republican presidents, Trump has added his own fundamental rights-extinguishing flare—modifying the rule to include additional funds.  The added extremism of the Trump-era global gag order has already had a devastating impact on women all over the world, with consequences ranging from healthcare-hindering confusion over what conduct is or is not permitted under the rule to patient deaths from unsafe abortions

Gendered Dress Codes and Their Disproportionate Enforcement

It is not just our human right to decide if, when and whether to use our bodies to reproduce that our current cultural climate deems contentious; it is the very sight of us.  American women barely hit puberty before our body parts become profane. At which time, we are quickly taught that it is our responsibility to “cover up” so that the mere sight of ourselves does not pose undue distraction to the opposite sex. 

According to a report by Today, this was the message Laura Orsi and Claira Mitchell received after Mitchell was accused of violating her school’s dress code policy last January.  To test the subjectivity of her school’s dress code enforcement, Orsi wore the same skirt Mitchell was dress coded for the very next day—without issue.  The experiences of Mitchell and Orsi highlight not only the racially discriminatory enforcement of gendered dress codes, but also their disproportionate impacts on girls, and minority students in particular.  


Gendered dress code policies are premised on the notion that women’s bodies are inherently sexual and effectively succeed in sexualizing and objectifying young women’s bodies in the process.  They teach us, early and often, that our physical selves are profane distractions that we must mitigate and minimize. 

Dress coding tells us to hide ourselves, to make ourselves smaller, more demure, less noticeable.  They suggest that if we leave too much of ourselves uncovered— too much thigh or exposed shoulders—we are provoking trouble and posing a social problem. 

Over time, we internalize the idea that our bodies are a bother and that if our flesh elicits unwanted attention, it must be our fault. Even in an era of #MeToo, this allows for generations of young women perfectly groomed to blame themselves for sexual violence perpetrated against them.  We are conditioned to believe that the “problem” lies not in the people staring at us, sizing us up, measuring our exposed flesh and objectifying us—but in our own skin.

The Persistence and Harm of Archaic Tropes of Virginity

Not only are women punished for the sight of ourselves, we are scrutinized for parts of us no one sees.  Even as modern women inch ever closer to gender parity, archaic views around our sexuality persist. The female “virgin” cliche carries the inherent cultural suggestion that a woman is waiting for a man to “take her virginity” or to “deflower her.”  The language and attitudes around virginity demonstrate the masculine power and dominance implicit in patriarchal ideations of sex between a man and a woman.

Men appropriate women’s virginity—something that was never theirs to take—to render us at least figuratively (if not literally) eternally belonging to or beholden to them.  Even if we stray, they have the prize of our forgone purity, a proverbial notch in their belts, that none of their brethren can claim. They are free to move on to the next conquest with cultural bragging rights, but we are forever changed, lessened, devalued and denigrated.     

Virginity tests recently garnered widespread attention and outrage after rapper, T.I., publicly admitted to subjecting his 18 year-old daughter to annual, gynecological hymen exams.  This sexual violence and human rights violation against women is not an exception, but a harsh reality for women and girls here and around the world

Sadly, the anomaly lies not in the incidence of virginity testing for American women, but in our country’s lack of public education, awareness and response to it.  According to a report by Marie Claire, despite their relative societal prevalence, virginity tests are largely unregulated by both the American medical profession and government.  

This social and cultural crime against women in the U.S. appears to be treated as a private, family matter outside the purview of government regulation and interference—a view eerily reminiscent of the historical treatment of domestic violence in America.  The heart of the “private matters of the home” view when it comes to justifying, excusing, and ignoring violence against women is the assumption that women belong to men—first our fathers, then our husbands. 

So, if our fathers insist on subjecting us to forced, medically unnecessary examinations of our hymens to evaluate our worth against a standard with no medical basis or our husbands beat us into submission, this logic dictates that it is simply their prerogative to do so.  While cultural attitudes and treatment of these issues are no longer the same, the persistence of public ignorance and silence where there should be outrage, is.

Our government should not be so hands-off when it comes to protecting women and girls from an involuntary, degrading, and sexually-violating procedure that sanctions hands on our bodies.  No doubt we have “come along way, baby,” but not far enough to find release from the shackles of nonsecular “feminine purity” and “virgin bride” tropes. The problem is not just that these culturally feminine ideals around virginity and chastity socialize us to be asexual, license masculine control and dominion over us, or that the opposite of these is celebrated and lauded among men; the problem is that they once again transform our value from who we are to what we are, our bodies from our own to other, and our “selves” from human to inanimate. 

Combatting Violence Against Women and Girls

The weaponization of our bodies is not just figurative and implicit, it is literal and explicit.  Since 2014, the number of women killed by men has risen by nearly 20 percent

Despite this alarming increase, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) still awaits legislative reauthorization, languishing in the Senate since its approval by the House last April. Republican reticence in taking up the bill is due, at least in part, to a provision aimed at preventing anyone with stalking or domestic violence misdemeanor convictions from making future firearm purchases—known as the “boyfriend exception.”

While it is easy to disregard this as the same sort of gun lobby-induced gridlock we have come to expect in Washington, the facts on women’s bodies and weapons make the urgency of VAWA approval clear.  Women experience violent crimes by intimate partners far more often than men, and intimate partner deaths from firearms are on the rise

Women are five times more likely to be killed by abusers who own guns, and American women are 21 times more likely to die from gun violence than women in other wealthy nations. As long as congressional approval of VAWA remains in a state of dire delay, women die.   

When our bodies are not riddled with bullets, they are ravaged by rape.  The #MeToo movement compelled our country to bear witness to and reckon with countless stories of sexual violence, and lead to public unmasking of proverbial perpetrators like Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump. 

Women are five times more likely to be killed by abusers who own guns, and American women are 21 times more likely to die from gun violence than women in other wealthy nations. (Chase Carter / Creative Commons)

But sexual violence, harassment, and the abiding, statistical risk of them are as real as ever for American women and girls.

One in five women will be raped during their lifetime—compared to one in 71 men—and 91 percent of rape and sexual assault victims are female. 

Not only are 20 percent of women raped: Many will be stripped of their culturally-coveted (and constructed) “virginity” by rape. One in 16 women’s first experience of sexual intercourse will be rape, according to a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine

This research only surveyed women between the ages of 18 and 44, and as Dr. Laura Hawks, the study’s main author, told NPR, “You can imagine that if we asked this of women of all ages, the absolute number would be many millions higher.” 

Women can never be full and equal participants in American society while so many of us continue to be beaten, raped and murdered, and the rest of us operate under constant threat of the same.  Increased national attention or not, as long as sexual violence in America is systemic, ours will be a country ranked among the most dangerous for women and where our bodies render us at risk.        

Unrealistic Modern Standards of Beauty

For those fortunate to have bodies untouched by physical and sexual violence, modern U.S. standards of beauty step in to batter our bodies with endless, consumerist options to “retouch” ourselves.  Unlike previous decades where barrages of beauty images were primarily confined to print media, television and film, social media now supplies extra digital doses of beauty prescriptions in all their unyielding, unrealistic, unattainable, and unhealthy glory. 

Although sometimes lauded for ushering in an era of more diverse, “body positive” definitions of beauty, the perennially perfect photos plastered on social media platforms may have particularly negative impacts on body images and expectations of women and girls.  The problem with social media is that more diverse and inclusive or not, influencer-inspired ideations of “feminine beauty” as new measures of women’s worth are of no benefit to women or our bodies.   

The price of increased, “Instagrammable” beauty bombardment is being paid by women to a booming $532 billion dollar beauty industry and a male-dominated cosmetic surgery industry—and the price is high. 

The cosmetic surgery industry capitalized on a demand that has nearly doubled since 2013, earning $16.5 billion dollars in 2018, with 92 percent of all cosmetic procedures performed on women

Not only are more of us slicing ourselves into submission for modern beauty, we are doing so at an earlier age: Nearly 227,000 of teens underwent cosmetic procedures in 2018. Children are permitted to undergo medically unnecessary surgeries and procedures to comport with superficial, culturally constructed-and-defined notions of beauty in the name of feeling better about themselves.  Yet, we as a society, refuse to reject, or at least reimagine, the made-up standards that compel our youth to view their natural bodies so negatively in the first place.  

The Pressure and Harmful Effects of the Weight Loss Industry

Modern beauty is slashing women’s self-esteem while cosmetic doctors cut our bodies and capitalize on our pain.  But when slicing is not an option (or even when it is), we starve.

Despite decreasing numbers of dieters, the weight loss industry in the U.S. raked in a record-setting $72 billion in 2018.  Body positivity may be expanding, but so are the diet market’s profits. 

Rising returns for a business built on the hungry bellies of Americans—mostly women—is coinciding with rising rates of eating disorders.  Between 2013 and 2018, incidence of eating disorders worldwide grew by more than 50 percent compared to 2000-2006, with women nearly four times as likely to suffer from eating disorders as men. 

Eating disorders are the most lethal of all mental disorders.   College-aged women have always been particularly at risk for developing disordered eating patterns.  A period of tremendous change, anxiety and uncertainty coupled with intense cultural pressure to avoid falling prey to the famed, shame-inducing “freshman fifteen,” create a collegiate climate where young women are expected to come into their own while compulsively scrutinizing their own skin.  Undergraduate unease around their bodies appears to be getting worse, instead of better, as eating disorder rates on college campuses increase.  Is this what a more “body positive” generation looks like?

We are conditioned to succumb to the myth that submitting to stringent, compulsory standards of female beauty will result in greater happiness, social approval and increased opportunities.

In reality, the only promise beauty never fails to fulfill in the lives of American women is pain. Physical pain from starving, plucking, injecting and cutting; emotional pain when we finally realize that no matter what we do (or don’t do), we are never enough. The proverbial prize at the end of the feminine rainbow for the most womanly or beautiful always eludes us because no matter how much we highlight, shade, cover, nip, tuck, contort or slice, we are never just right for gender parity.  The “right” woman for the most powerful positions and offices in our society simply does not exist.

No matter what lengths we go to, we are inevitably too pretty, too ugly, too shrill, trying too hard, not trying hard enough, too fat, too thin, too dumb, too masculine, too emotional, too cold, too nice, too bitchy, and finally, the age-old, ambiguous, catch-all—”not likeable” enough. 

As gender and women’s rights consultant, Chloe Safier, told The Guardian earlier this year:

“The discussion around a woman presidential candidate’s ‘likability’ is an updated, #MeToo-era adaptation of discussing a woman’s looks or clothes. It’s a thinly veiled attempt at tearing someone down because they don’t conform to rigid, limiting standards of gender-specific behavior.”

The Trap for Women in the Public Eye

Women are plagued by the likeability trap because our society—consciously or unconsciously—still struggles with the sight of us in powerful, authoritative positions.  The problem is not that we are too much or not enough of anything; the problem is that we are not men.  

American sexism does not like the “unnatural”—and thus unusual—sight of a woman’s body in any position traditionally dominated and held by men.  When it comes to representation at the highest levels of government and industry, our bodies still remain our biggest barriers to entry.

Even as we access arenas and open doors previously closed to us in increasing numbers, “the higher, the fewer” phenomenon persists.  Of the companies on the 2019 Fortune 500 list, only 33 were led by women CEOs.  Similar gender leadership disparities exist outside of corporate America. For example, women make up the majority of healthcare workers, yet only about 13 percent of healthcare CEOs are women

A similar discrepancy exists in the legal profession as well.  In 2019, women comprised 50 percent of law school graduates, but only accounted for 35 percent of law school deans and 22 percent of managing partners for the 200 largest law firms. 

Even in traditionally “feminine” professions like education, women cannot escape confinement by a “glass ceiling”: Despite the fact that women outnumber men on college campuses and hold nearly half of all full-time faculty positions, in 2016, only 30 percent of college presidents and 26 percent of tenured professors were women.  

Politics provides another prime example of how women struggle to look the part, our bodies never appearing “presidential” enough to win over the American public.  This is unsurprising given that the characteristics we typically associate with politicians tend to be traditionally masculine, thereby, disadvantaging women by default and creating inherent presumptions only female candidates must spend precious political time and resources to overcome. 

Not only do women have to contend with body-based barriers to office, they must exercise extreme caution in doing so since media attention to their appearance has been shown to decrease their chances of winning elections.  This is particularly damaging given that women candidates are more often scrutinized for their appearance than male candidates.  

It might be assumed that only negative assessments and critiques of female candidates’ appearance are detrimental to their political success, but in fact the opposite seems to be true.  Despite intense cultural pressure for women to conform to and comply with conventional notions of beauty and femininity, beauty is less a blessing than a curse for women in politics.

Recent research suggests that being labeled “attractive” is actually more damaging to female candidates’ chances of success than male candidates labeled the same, and male and female candidates not labeled attractive. 

Continuing to define our worth in terms of physical beauty and attractiveness is not only psychologically and physically harmful and limiting to women, it is politically harmful and limiting.  But, perhaps that is precisely the point.   

Attractiveness is not the only basis by which women’s bodies are employed to undermine our attempts to achieve political parity.  When it comes to playing politics with our physical selves, suggestions of female frailty, failing health, weakness and age, work just as well.  During the 2016 Presidential Election, media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s health—or purported lack thereof—practically portrayed her as knocking on death’s door. 

“During the 2016 Presidential Election, media coverage of Hillary Clinton’s health—or purported lack thereof—practically portrayed her as knocking on death’s door.” (Lorie Shaull / Creative Commons)

Aside from a bout with pneumonia that required a mere four-day break from the campaign trail, Clinton’s long-term physical well-being was called into question despite any real, concrete evidence to the contrary,  In fact, not only were claims of physical unfitness unsubstantiated; they were directly contradicted by Clinton’s own medical records, including her doctor’s statement that her physical and mental health were normal and excellent respectively.  

Conservative efforts to place Clinton’s health at issue in the press were underway well before her medical diagnosis with a well-known, fairly common, and treatable bacterial infection.  As Jessica Valenti writes in her essay, “Hillary Would Be Declared Dead If She Went to the Hospital in Secret”: 

From “jokes” about menstruation and how PMS might impact a female president’s decisions to the broad disdain this culture has for older women (especially those with power), worries about a female candidate’s health is often just a cover for an age-old misogynist belief: Women aren’t meant to lead.  

Misogynistically motivated or not, it worked.  Media coverage around Clinton’s health achieved a political purpose, negatively impacting voter perception of her health.  A post-election study (although not peer-reviewed) shed some light on the impact the health hysteria may have had on the election outcome.  Research conducted by Ohio State University indicates that around four percent of 2012 Obama voters defected from Clinton in 2016 due to false news stories, with 25 percent of all voters surveyed and 12 percent of 2012 Obama voters believing the story that Clinton suffered from poor health.  

Fortunately, Clinton’s experience has not deterred women from entering politics in record numbers.  Modern women are making historical gains everywhere—from the halls of Congress to outer space

But the closer we come to breaking glass ceilings for once and for all, the more intensely those seeking to sustain and secure American women’s “second sex” status attempt to use our bodies to box us back in. 

Although we cannot separate ourselves from our own culturally-limiting, physical embodiments of “female,” we can reveal, reject and resist every sexist misappropriation of ourselves. We can continue to demand to inhabit a safer, more equitable society, and more space within it for ourselves and our sisters.  We can “clap-back” against every misogynist and redefine our bodies by ourselves, for ourselves as what they were meant to be—physical manifestations of our humanity. We can create a world for our daughters where female bodies no longer subject them to a gendered hell, but where all women reclaim their bodies for themselves.         


Ashley Jordan is a feminist writer, activist and organizer and a licensed attorney and former prosecutor who specialized in domestic violence cases. She has taught Gender and Women’s Studies courses at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois and researched and written extensively on issues of feminism and gender equality. She is the founder of Women Activists, a women’s rights activism group in Wisconsin, and the feminist blog FashionForwardFeminist.com. You can find her @feministforward.