In Sex and Beauty, Are Women’s Choices Truly As Free As We Think?

And, how do we even define choice? Is it as clear-cut as it seems?

image by Eric Nopanen from

I stumbled upon an article recently which offered the following sentiment:

“Many people believe that strippers and exotic dancers are sexually objectified, but if we ask the question, “Who has the agency and the power?” it is clearly the woman on stage. She has chosen to be there and is interfacing with her sexual side under her terms.”

Is this truly as simple as it seems?

Is something powerful and liberating, simply because a woman (or anyone) decides to do it?

When a woman chooses to make herself into a sex object, simply by means of her having “chosen” to do so, does this mean she has the agency and power?

Is she really empowered here?

Is she truly in touch with her sexual side? As in, is her dress and dance for her? Or is it for the men who are paying her wages for the sex and dance?

How exactly does one define “choice”? And especially in the vein of both empowering and independent choice.

Plenty of us choose to do things which are terrible for us. So choice does not automatically mean something is empowering, liberating, or good. Countless choices are harmful, damaging, and even bad for us, both as individuals or for the culture at large.

While a woman may choose to wear make-up and that can be a feminist method of self-expression, often the “choice” women make to wear it is rooted in the subconscious or even conscious desire to conform to patriarchal beauty standards.

The same goes for shaving and most other beauty rituals, which all serve to reinforce the narrow, rigid, and oppressive idea of femininity in our culture.

So, even if she thinks, believes, and has convinced herself, “I am doing this for me and because I want to. I am liberated and empowered,” it’s very difficult to actually separate subconscious from conscious decision making. To know truly, if something you are doing is based on completely independent desire and thought, as opposed to influenced by surrounding culture.

Oftentimes, as humans, we are not fully aware of our inner emotional workings. This is why it is easy to convince ourselves of the reason for what we did or thought, when a completely different reality may, in actuality, be the truth.

Thus, while seeming choices, many beauty and sex behaviors for women are subconscious things they do out of a rigid cultural expectation and guideline.

In the words of Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: The quality called “beauty” objectively and universally exists. For this concept to endure though, women must want to embody it, and men must want to possess women who do so. Meaning, if women stopped buying into and chasing after embodying the narrow idea of beauty our culture touts, the concept of what we currently consider as beauty is would cease. The embodiment of our culture’s current “right idea” of beauty is imperative for women, though not men because it is intrinsic in their worth and desirability to men.

So yes, the woman has, in the simplest sense, chosen to be on stage, dancing under the gaze of men and ultimately, to make her money off that gaze and desire (because without it, there wouldn’t be a market for what she is doing).

(This is not much different from women who post nearly nude photos online to garner “claps” and “likes.” They are being “paid” in the form of validation and seeming social standing).

But merely because she donned the duds and climbed up on stage, this doesn’t offer us any deeper insight into what that choice means, or even, how much of a choice it really is. “Choice” can be a tricky, nuanced, loaded word.

For example, many of us choose to get up and go to work in the morning, not because we truly are excited and actually want to (if you weren’t being paid for it, would you still wake up and go?), but because we need the paycheck to live and the health insurance. Thus, how much of a choice is that really? My point with this example being, just because we “choose” to do something does not mean it isn’t loaded and layered with complication. And, that it may not be as “free” a “choice” as it seems.

Some 90% of the women who work in the sex industry are victims of sexual abuse and incest. Plenty of women who work in the sex industry struggle with drug addiction. A whole litany of women who work in the sex and media industries battle with eating disorders and their self-image.

Thus, is it still a choice, and is she still the one with the power if she is doing it to fuel and support her drug habit?

Or, if it’s because this type of thing is all she’s ever known? That leveraging sex and her body as her primary commodity are what she’s learned is her primary value within our culture, as well as maybe within the dysfunctional family in which she grew up?

In our highly competitive, appearance oriented culture, one in which women are told time and time again “your value is in how you look,” under such a pressurized social code, is it any surprise that women post highly sexualized imagery of themselves online for likes? To reiterate to themselves and others of their supposed worth.

How about that women get plastic surgery and claim “I wanted this”?

Or that most women are perpetually dieting and half-starving themselves?

Do we really think women would freely choose these things, were there no men and no patriarchial culture in the picture?

How much can we really parse these things out as a choice, completely separate from patriarchal beauty standards and culture? As totally independent thoughts and desires that are wholly their own. Imagine if there was no patriarchy. I am not sure that women would continue to act in such ways if there weren’t.

Is it really a choice when a woman dresses like a sex worker when out and about in every day life or slices and dices her body in order to then “feel better” about herself and appeal to the culture at larges narrow beauty standards?

So that she feels worthwhile, in a society that tells her if she doesn’t look a certain way, then she isn’t.

Is it truly empowering if she is doing such things in order to feel good about herself? That she cannot find a way to feel good about herself otherwise, in our culture which perpetually shames women for most of the ways they look naturally. So instead, she searches for her sense of self-worth in the approval, desire, and outer response of others.

Logically, that sounds the opposite of choice. Disempowering and coming from a place of insecurity, sadness, possibly even desperation, in order to feel as though she fits into our toxic culture of “beauty.”

For those who have seen Game of Thrones, there is a scene during which Daenerys Targaryen says to two men, “bend the knee and you can join my army, or refuse and die.”

This is akin to the “choices” with regards to beauty for most women in our culture today, or at least, that’s how it can feel.

Yes, women can refuse and push back on the rigid, cruel beauty standards that are pushed upon us. It takes an incredibly emotionally strong and confident woman to do this though and is thus, a rare instance indeed.

So, most women will give in and go along with things. They will seek the ideas of beauty that will make them visible, approved of, and supposedly then worthwhile. They will “bend the knee” so to speak, and will prefer not to “die” in our culture (meaning, be deemed invisible, unworthy, ugly, you name it, by men and by our culture at large).

This is the nature of much “choice” women contend with amidst our beauty culture today.

What kind of choice is it really, if a woman struggles with depression and anxiety, has eating disorder issues, and places great priority on her looks and body, going along with and playing into this kind of imagery as a way to try and feel better about herself?

Is that really a fair or fully free choice?

In reality, though, going along with and doing this is the placing of her self esteem on a precarious house of cards.

“Choice” is not as clean-cut as the word implies. And as a result, true empowerment is far more difficult to parse out.

True empowerment is not going along with rigid beauty culture, which includes starving oneself, cutting oneself open and getting surgery in order to better fit into the harmful and absurd standards of beauty in our society, taking diet pills, hating one’s looks, extreme exercising, and other forms of self-mutilation and self harm.

That is the opposite of empowerment. It’s the opposite of confidence. It’s the opposite of liberating. It’s going along with the way we are told we “must” look and be, in order to be deemed good enough and to garner the desires and approval of men and our society.

Women (and men) may act certain ways, dress certain ways, do and say particular things, yet it is very difficult to know how much of this is original, independent thought and completely free choice. Especially when we are all living under such stringent and cruel beauty standards. And especially when women are still told that their value, both to society and to men, is in their bodies, their weight, and how they look.

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

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