Artist Series: An Open Letter To Scantily Clad Women
On Writing: An essay by Erin Granat
Every month I am publishing a piece from a contemporary artist I admire. This month, I am thrilled to share an essay by. “An Open Letter To Scantily Clad Women” hit close to home for me on so many levels. I am said woman. This is not about shame. It’s about asking a not-so-simple question: Why?
In this essay, Erin circles around this Why, among other hard-to-answer questions like what happens when female empowerment and objectification overlap? She also dives into selfie culture, fucked up beauty standards, the time she auditioned for Playboy, and much more.
Erin Granat is a writer and filmmaker originally from rural Nevada. Her writing has been supported by the Key West Literary Seminar and she is the recipient of the Gorrell Award for Emerging Writers. Erin’s essay “Not A Ghost Town, But For Me It’s Haunted” was a finalist for CRAFT Literary’s 2021 Creative Nonfiction Prize and the 2022 Newfound Prose Competition. As a live storyteller, she has performed with The Moth, Back Pocket, and the Edinburgh Fringe. Erin’s debut feature film as co writer-director is MOON MANOR, created with Machete Bang Bang, which was bought by Showtime for streaming and selected for the Academy’s Core Collection. Erin writes the Substack Planet Granat .
Before we get into her work, let’s start with three questions.
» What are you reading right now?
“The Boys Of My Youth” by Jo Ann Beard.
A collection of memoirs/essays. She’s one of my favorite creative nonfiction writers, she manages to write about tragedy and trauma in a voice that’s not self-pitying or hyperbolic. The sentences are mesmerizing.
» What do you do when you’re coming up against resistance and you can’t seem to get to the center of the thing—the writing, the living, the task at hand? How do you get to where you want to go?
I love this question. I first try to de-escalate the resistance. Meaning, I put it in its place. Is the challenge before me as complex as painting the Sistine Chapel or animating a Pixar movie or even the last house move I did? Probably not. Those tasks were all accomplished, whatever is before me can be as well. If that doesn’t work - I quit. Do something else. Lately, that looks like really long walks through the woods.
» Tell me about this essay. Where did it come from?
From my own self-inquiry, trying to understand why I’ve ever felt the need to post provocative photos on my social media, why that’s become the norm for many women in the age of social media. I didn’t want to come at it from a place of judgment but of deep self-assessment. My Playboy “audition” was a weird thing I experienced and always wanted to write about, but it was never much more than an anecdote. A few years ago I had the chance to pitch stories to the editor of Playboy. I pitched the idea of writing about that audition, from the lens of asking why women (me included, at the time) even want the Playboy mark of approval. The editor never responded. Might’ve been more than they were ready for. For the best, because now I can publish the piece exactly as I want to write it. I lovefor giving us a platform in this way.
by Erin Granat
An Open Letter To Scantily Clad Women
Dear Scantily Clad Women,
Let me say from the jump — I am not here to shame you. I am you. And now I just want to know why.
See me in almost every Halloween costume I’ve worn as an adult.
See me in a Maxim bikini contest in Reno as an undergrad, pretending it was all just a joke, secretly wanting to know how I’d stack up. (The contest was held at an Italian restaurant, we catwalked as diners ate lasagna and waved breadsticks for their favorite contestants like they were those giant foam fingers at sporting events — I did not win.)
Here’s what I want to know: Why are we compelled to post photos that are basically soft core? Is sharing a provocative photo a form of self-soothing, or perpetuating the message that self-worth is skin deep? Are we lemmings of the patriarchy, or in an apex of body positivity and the selfie is reclaiming the lens? Really though, why does confirmation of sexual attractiveness feel so fucking good?
A few years into having jumped ship from Reno to Los Angeles, I was at a bar when I got “scouted” for Playboy. I can pretend I was offended, or embarrassed, or that I was intrigued simply from an anthropological standpoint. But I would be lying. I was deeply flattered, from the same place inside me that sees anti-aging cream and is relieved knowing there are tools for when the wrinkles arrive.
Being “scouted” meant a beautiful girl with great teeth approached me and said (convincingly? flirtatiously?) that I was “spicy” and should pose for Playboy. She had done it, and a “world of opportunity had opened up.” She took down my phone number and disappeared into the crowd; like any excellent pitch artist she dealt in mystery more than fact.
My experiences of Playboy before that night:
After my senior of high school I worked as a marketing intern for a casino in my hometown of Lake Tahoe. The big event of the summer was a Playboy sponsored golf tournament, with Playmates on every hole (a pun made by the golfers, trust). My job was to shuttle the Playmates around the golf course, bring them water and snacks. The women were friendly and funny, gossiping about wild nights at the Mansion and who was next in line for centerfold. They complained about the heat. They talked about their kids. They were glamorous and delicate, and worshipped by the paunchy men who’d paid thousands to hit their little balls near them. As an 18 year-old country bumpkin in that environment, I yearned to be as glamorous and confident as the Playmates.
A young woman at my university posed for Playboy and was vilified for it, especially by other female students. They stapled her fully nude, fully-leg-spread pictorial (it’s burned in my memory) around campus. We were in the same English class. I remember the professor could barely look her in the eye. One day, she stopped showing up.
I went to the audition.
My curiosity, my need to know if I “had what it takes” trumped the cautionary tale of the college co-ed. I felt like I’d lived my life hiding behind a shield of respectability. My grandfather (who I worshipped) had explained what “a man won’t buy the cow if he can get the milk for free” meant when I was about 14 years old, and I’d taken it as gospel. But no longer.
A week after the “scouting” I arrived at the Playboy warehouse in Burbank. There were no framed covers of the famous magazine on the walls like I’d expected, no voluptuous women sashaying around with bevies of handlers. It was just me with a free bottle of water and a frenzied secretary who told me she was “just a temp” as she vacuumed around my feet and a Glade air freshener spritzing lavender fumes. Perhaps these were the industrial offices of the company? It was not what I expected. Not what I hoped for? I started to lose my nerve. Then I got called back to the audition room.
A man with a camera ushered me inside. He looked bored. He asked me to remove my shirt so he could take photos of me in my bra. I did as he asked. I’d practiced for this moment, posing in front of my mirror at home, trying to find that pin-up expression of Oops, you caught me in my undies!
He popped off a few lazy photos. There was no music or “vibe.” The lighting was terrible. I started to feel ridiculous. He gestured for me to go behind a curtain. I did. There was a mirror and a few issues of the magazine on a stool. He said I should remove my bra and come back out for topless photos. I thought the faux modesty of the curtain was funny, like having privacy for the bra removal moment made a difference when the point was to have your naked breasts in print for all the world to see.
I looked at myself in the mirror.
Had I got what I came for? Did I need to go the extra step of nude photos, of being “chosen?”
I glanced at the magazine covers. These were not the classy vintage Playboy pictorials, women with soft curves shot on flattering film. These were digital and garish, shot on the cheesy sets of the mid-aughts. One model wore a thong in a kitchen, pulling a cheesecake out of the oven. I remembered my promise to bring my grandmother a slice of cheesecake with dinner that Sunday. My effervescent 95 year-old grandmother Ruby Love, my best friend. She would kill me if I posed for Playboy.
I pushed the curtain aside. Mumbled something like “sorry to waste your time” as I pulled on my shirt and left the room. He never even looked up from his phone. The whole experience was like a trip to the dentist’s office. Awkward, sterile, kinda painful. I felt weird and like I needed to take a shower.
When I’ve since told female friends about the experience, almost all say they would have done the same thing. The only difference is most have said they would’ve gone all the way and posed topless, for a real chance to get in the magazine.
I imagine a Venn diagram — one circle is female empowerment, the other is objectification of the female form. What do we call the center slice where the two overlap?
A recent study by gender psychologists that looked at 68,000 sexy selfies from Twitter and Instagram, found that female sexualization might not, in fact, be linked to a culture of female oppression — where women are treated, and treat themselves, as sexual objects. Instead:
Sexy selfies and appearance enhancement are markers of high female competition. Psychology tells us that economic inequality highlights an individual's relative social position, stoking status anxiety among people on every level of the social hierarchy. Inequality also provokes and intensifies competition. In evolutionary terms, the authors say sexualization "may be a marker of social climbing among women," who are keeping tabs on the local "competition."
So, sexualized portrayals of women are not a product of gender inequality or oppression, but more so an example of female competition and advancement?
And we’re competing for … the wealthiest husband? The most red hearts on our photos? Which are both a form of security?
I get the basic physiological mechanisms at work here: a good figure means good health. Good health means the ability to bear children. Thus, displaying attractiveness is as hardwired into women as being able to hunt well (aka make money) is hardwired into men. We are animals and this is how our species has survived.
But if women are competing with each other, while also marching together for more equitable treatment, during a time when magazines still airbrush models to unachievable proportions, and the extremely sexualized show Euphoria is the reigning teen drama, at the same moment a young woman in Iran was killed for wearing her hijab too loose, and after a hard day it’s nice to see all those red hearts bloom on a picture you post, and it’s easier to net those red hearts if said photo is a sexy one featuring your body … then what the fuck, man?
We like to share body positive memes, then post photos that reinforce our objectification. I’ve done it. And the little hungry ghost inside me, the same one that went to the Maxim bikini contest and the Playboy audition, feels frustrated in a flattered way when my activist memes don’t get as much heat as my clickbait images.
Case in point: here is a post I made on Instagram with an excerpt from Susan Sontag’s excellent essay The Double Standard of Aging. The post got 47 likes (and this was when the algorithm was more friendly).
And here is a post of selfies I made a few weeks earlier, that’s blatantly provocative and has a mindless caption. Number of likes: over 200.
I’m going to include the Sontag excerpt here, because it bears repeating.
For women, only one standard of female beauty is sanctioned: the girl.
The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks — heavier, rougher, more thickly built. A man does not grieve when he loses the smooth, unlined, hairless skin of a boy. For he has only exchanged one form of attractiveness for another: the darker skin of a man’s face, roughened by daily shaving, showing the marks of emotion and the normal lines of age.
There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat. No wonder that no boy minds becoming a man, while even the passage from girlhood to early womanhood is experienced by many women as their downfall, for all women are trained to continue wanting to look like girls.
So are we posting all these “come hither” pics to keep proving how young and “come hither” we are, especially to ourselves?
Maybe it’s like a prism — we project the attractive self we wish to be, hoping the light refracting back will make it so.
Is posting “workout photos” the male equivalent? In an aggressively mediocre New York Times op-ed, James Franco defended the male selfie in 2013, when it was a “hot new trend.”
Also. Google “selfie death” and find these top hits:
Also. Google “digital permanence” and learn how everything you post stays there forever and ever, amen.
What goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet. Videos, blogs, photos, comments, Tweets, website visits, clicks on links, views of YouTube items, Google search terms and results, and, yes, Facebook posts, are all designed to last forever. “Once on the web, always on the web.”
As a final thought / invitation, here are the questions I run thru the matrix of my mind before posting a photo where I look “sexy.” In case it’s of use:
Am I posting this because I need attention, or because I’ve lived in my sweatpants for the last many days and want to remember I’m a woman in a woman’s body?
If I need attention, is there a way to get it other than posting a photo I might regret later? Is there another way to remember I’m a woman in a woman’s body?
Is there a certain number of “likes” on this photo I need to feel validated?
If I have second thoughts about posting the photo, is it because of the old warning “if you dress like that you’ll invite unwelcome attention / trouble will come to you … insinuating I could be assaulted or raped simply because I look sexy, and it would be my fault. Does the fact that I could be raped and conceive a child and be forced to have the child as abortion laws are overturned in this country terrify me? Yes.
Awaiting your thoughts on this.
Where to find Erin:
If you’d like to recommend someone for Artist Series, please leave a comment with their name and a link to their website or IG.