Are “Sexy” Magazine Covers Empowering for Women? This Evidence Says No.

The cover of this month’s Women’s Health magazine features actress Cobie Smulders (Robin from How I Met Your Mother) posing topless, with only her arms covering her bare chest. If you find that surprising for a magazine called Women’s Health, consider the May cover of Golf Digest: It boasts a similar topless-with-strategic-cover-up photo of athlete Lexi Thompson.

To be honest, I can’t say these covers surprise me. Nude photos of successful women make frequent appearances in the media. Women’s Health, along with CosmopolitanSports IllustratedMaxim, and a slew of other popular magazines regularly feature sexually explicit content and imagery.

Although nude images on magazine covers have lost their power to shock, they’re still a relatively recent phenomenon. The degree to which women are sexualized in magazines, in song lyrics, on television, in video games, on the Internet, in advertising, and in music videos today is unparalleled. As Dawn Hawkins, vice president of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, describes it, “Yesterday’s pornography is today’s mainstream media.” Somehow, we have gotten to a point where a topless photo of a well-respected woman on the cover of a women’s health magazine barely raises eyebrows. Whether or not this is a positive development is a subject of much debate…READ MORE

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I wrote this article for Verily Magazine, where it was originally published.

Art Credit: Christian Tonnis


That’s What Makes You Beautiful?

Beauty is difficult to talk about. It is an abstract concept with concrete manifestations. It is limitless but exists within the bounds of the material world. To be honest, I’m not sure I know what beauty is—but I’m going to talk about it anyway.

I’ve heard a lot of different theories about “what makes women beautiful.” And I agree with many of them. I believe that beauty is both subjective and objective—that at any given moment there are some people who are simply more beautiful than others. I also believe that a person’s beauty is the product of both physical and spiritual elements—that one’s personality, actions, soul, affect how beautiful someone is. Kindness, charity, humility, confidence and a host of other things all serve to enhance physical beauty.


But there are some characteristics that are widely treated as detriments to or enhancers of feminine beauty that, well, make no sense to me.

Maybe the most pervasive of these is the idea that in order to be truly beautiful, women must be ignorant of their own physical beauty.

(I speak specifically of female beauty only because I am a woman. I suppose I should include male beauty in this discussion, but… I’m not going to.)

We’ve all heard the One Direction song “What Makes You Beautiful.” If you haven’t, the premise of the song is that a beautiful girl exists, and that beautiful girl doesn’t know she’s beautiful—and the fact that she doesn’t know she’s beautiful, in turn, makes her beautiful.

 “You don’t know you’re beautiful,

Oh, oh,
That’s what makes you beautiful”

Now I know I’ll probably get some flak for hating on the untouchable 1D, but let’s get this straight; the implication of this song is that ignorance of one’s physical beauty makes one beautiful—that women who know they are pretty are less pretty than they might otherwise be for their knowledge.


So not only do we demand that women live up to insane standards of physical beauty, but we demand that in order to be truly beautiful, they must also be utterly clueless about their ability to reach those standards.

Just to be clear—this idea is not singular to this song. I’ve heard it casually referenced in conversation, in other songs, in movies my entire life, and I’d be willing to bet that you have too.

How many times have you been on either end of this insufferable conversation?

“You are so beautiful,” says person speaking to beautiful girl.

“No, no, I’m not,” beautiful girl bashfully replies.

Why do women have to respond this way?

If the girl in this scenario isn’t lying, why doesn’t she know she’s beautiful?!

If the girl in this scenario is lying, why is she lying? Why is it such a bad thing to know yourself attractive?

I have to imagine it is very confusing to feel unattractive because you think you look attractive.

In my experience, most people agree there is something unattractive about people who think they are more attractive than they are, people who are unwilling to acknowledge their flaws. While I find it a little disturbing that we’re fine with women thinking themselves uglier than they are, but not with women thinking themselves prettier than they are, I understand the aversion to ignorance of one’s imperfections.

To imagine your nose straight when it is crooked, or your eyes balanced when they are crossed is a sign of delusion—and there is certainly something unattractive about delusion.

But doesn’t not knowing that you are physically beautiful, or thinking yourself less beautiful than you are, smack of a similar delusion, or at least ignorance?

Can we talk about the negative psychological implications of a girl who is so beautiful that she is “turning heads when [she walks] through the door” but is somehow unaware that she’s beautiful. I’m no psychiatrist, but this sounds like the stuff of serious psychological problems.


Now—I’d wager that the basis for an aversion to a pretty girl’s knowledge of her own beauty is rooted in a respect for humility, and a misguided understanding of what humility is. It is true, in my mind, that both humility and confidence are beautiful qualities.

But humility and confidence are two sides of the same coin, and neither is served by ignorance.

Humility is not served by ignorance of one’s strengths, and confidence is not served by ignorance of one’s flaws.

So can it really be an unattractive quality to be aware of your own good looks—or an attractive quality to be unaware of them?

I can’t argue with anyone’s personal tastes, but I submit that, in an objective sense, it cannot.

Physically beautiful women don’t become less beautiful when they become aware of their own physical beauty, they become less beautiful when they think their physical beauty is everything, when they assign to it more meaning than it deserves, when they obsess over it, when they accept the worldly argument that physical beauty is the summit of female achievement.

There is a significant difference between being ignorant of one’s beauty, and being detached from it.

A woman does not become more beautiful by thinking herself less pretty than she is, she becomes more beautiful by knowing exactly how pretty she is, and acknowledging how incidental that prettiness is.

So can we stop shaming women for their awareness of their own beauty?

Can we stop the glorification of low self esteem?

Ladies, know that you are pretty, know that you are imperfect, know that prettiness is a gift of little true import and not to be obsessed over, but don’t let anyone convince you that awareness of your own beautiful attributes makes you less beautiful. It just doesn’t.

Why Calling Women “Too Sensitive” Makes Absolutely No Sense

Of all the criticism that women endure, the critique I hear most often is that women are “too sensitive.”

Ironically, this phrase, “too sensitive,” makes no sense.


^Vivian Leigh knows what I’m talking about.^

Now I am not trying to prove or disprove the claim that women are more sensitive than men. I am arguing that, if we are more sensitive, it’s a good thing.

Indulge me, if you will, in a brief exploration of “sensitivity”.

1. Sensitivity makes you more in touch with reality, not less.

Consider the word in any other context. Consider that we are talking about a scale, or a Doppler radar, or a thermometer. Now the purpose of a thermometer is to sense fluctuations in the temperature around it. Let’s say one thermometer can sense one degree fluctuations in the temperature. That’s a pretty good thermometer. But wait; there is another more sensitive thermometer that can register fluctuations down to a tenth of a degree. The second thermometer’s sensitivity does not render it incapable of use, but, in fact, a better thermometer.

Let us apply this reasoning to humanity.

Just as a more sensitive thermometer picks up on more fluctuations in the temperature than a less sensitive one, so a “more sensitive” person picks up on more of the subtleties of his environment than his less sensitive peers. Thus, a very sensitive person is highly aware of his surroundings. To be more aware of one’s surroundings makes one more in touch with reality. This means that more sensitive people are more in touch with reality, not less.

So when people spout off about women being “too sensitive,” they are really saying that women are too aware of reality. What they are really saying is that a certain modicum of oblivion and ignorance makes for a more reasonable person. Such cannot possibly be the case. The more sensitive you are, the more information you have with which to reason. Sensitive people may draw unreasonable conclusions, but their sensitivity is not to blame, their inability to reason is.

2. Emotions make sense.

Typically, discussions about sensitivity go hand in hand with discussions about emotion, as they should. Just as certain sensations accompany a nose’s interaction with a particular smell, or a mouth with a particular taste, so certain sensations accompany one’s interactions with particular experiences.

Emotions are the sensations of the soul, and they accompany our interactions with the world, people, reality. The more sensitive, the more aware, the more in touch you are with reality, the more emotions (sensations) you will have.


Now we’ve all met people who appear to be crying for no reason, people who are experiencing an emotion that we don’t understand. It is from this particular situation that, I suspect, the “too sensitive” diagnosis arose. There are two possibilities, and in neither of them does the “too sensitive” diagnosis make sense:

 Possibility #1: The sensitive person is picking up on something you can’t sense.

Usually when people confront an emotion in someone else that they cannot understand, they jump to the conclusion that the emotional person is delusional (which may be the case). It is possible, however, that the emotional person is simply more sensitive than you, and therefore picking up on more than you, sensing subtleties in the situation that your limited awareness cannot register.

 Consider a chef with a highly sensitive palette. You may accompany him to the same restaurant, eat the same food, drink the same wine, and yet, have an entirely different experience than him. You may have wholeheartedly enjoyed every bite, while he leaves unsatisfied, and disappointed.

Now you might conclude that he is delusional, or has impossible standards. It is likely, however, that because of the sensitivity of his palette, he picked up on a subtle but telling staleness in a particular ingredient, or a disharmony in a combination of flavors that you can’t even taste. In this case, the chef’s palette is not “too sensitive,” just more sensitive than yours. And it is precisely the sensitivity of his palette that, along with making him a better chef, makes truly great food enjoyable for him to a degree that less sensitive eaters cannot experience.

 So before you conclude that because you can’t sense it, it doesn’t exist, consider your own limitations.

Possibility #2: The emotional person is not actually very sensitive.

Continuing with chef metaphor, no one objects to a chef picking up on too many flavors in a particular dish, but one should certainly object to a chef picking up on flavors that aren’t actually present in the dish. Likewise, no one should object to a person picking up on too much of reality. But one should certainly object to a person sensing something that isn’t actually real. “Sensing” things that do not exist does not make you “too sensitive,” it makes you delusional.

Sensitivity, then, is not the cause of the person’s senseless reaction, but the solution. This person is by definition insensitive, unaware of his true surroundings. He should seek to become more sensitive, more aware of reality, not less.

 So, if you are going to criticize women, don’t criticize them for being “too sensitive,” as there is no such thing. Either you are simply less aware than them, or they are not only insensitive, but delusional. Either way, being “too sensitive” is not the problem. And if you are criticized for being “too sensitive,” take it as a compliment, because your heightened awareness only makes you more in touch with reality. You’re just a little more aware than the average bear. Use it to your advantage.