Miley Cyrus is a hot topic these days. Makes sense–she draws attention to herself, she behaves in a lot of controversial ways, and she’s no stranger to making bold statements. She also makes a lot of people angry.
People like to mention her to me because I worked with her, whether they’re strangers on the Internet or various people I interact with in my regular life. Often, they will make some negative remark about Miley, perhaps to see how I will react or expecting me to agree.
Though I support much of what Miley does, I don’t endorse all of it. The biggest improvements she could stand to make involve educating herself about race, the role racism plays in society, and how she has contributed to it. She’s participated in a lot of harmful cultural appropriation. The way she responded to Nicki Minaj’s criticism of the VMA’s choice to omit “Anaconda” from the Video of the Year lineup demonstrated ignorance and irresponsibility as a feminist. Since Miley wants to fight so hard against sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, she should add racism to that list and recognize how all of these things can overlap.
But when people bash Miley in front of me, it is never about this. It’s always stuff like, “Good thing you don’t dress like her!” and “You wouldn’t associate with her now, right, with her waving her vag all over the place?”
This makes me so uncomfortable.
First of all, buried in those statements is the implicit understanding that I’m better than Miley because of the lifestyle I’ve chosen. It’s a backhanded way of giving me approval for not showing too much skin, staying away from drugs and parties, going to college, etc. There’s nothing inherently superior about those things, though. They just reflect my personality, as Miley’s behaviors and modes of self-expression reflect hers.
Unfortunately, I’m very familiar with getting this kind of attitude from people. In high school, I had an unusual group of friends. We were a bunch of misfits who didn’t share much in common beyond a few interests and what people might call “troubled” emotional lives. I was the academic kid in the group, the one who liked to read, cared about her grades, and planned on college.
Every so often, an adult, such as a teacher or another student’s parent, would say to me, “Wait, you’re friends with them? But…you’re so smart/put-together/pleasant!”
If they thought I was put-together, well, I’m glad the ruse was working. But how was I supposed to react to this? People decades older than me who I often admired fueled my compliments by stomping all over my friends first. I had real reasons to care about my friends. I didn’t view them as being beneath me or undeserving of my attention, as others seemed to think I should. I just viewed them as different. So these comments made me feel gross.
I feel similarly sick when people speak to me about Miley in this way, like I narrowly avoided her satanic influence or something. Here’s another thing, though: it’s not just that I dislike people insulting someone I used to work with. I also actively support much of Miley’s exploits. Yes, including the way she parades around the world half-naked.
It’s easy to feel like people in our culture are terrified of naked human bodies, especially what many people think of as “female” bodies (bodies with breasts and/or vaginas aren’t inherently female, since people who identify as male or nonbinary can have breasts and/or vaginas, too). A lot of the time, they automatically equate bodies with sex, and sex with indecency/sin/teenage pregnancy/take your pick. When they see a naked body, they shield their eyes. They condemn the naked body, this thing that everyone has, as inappropriate. Sometimes something to be ashamed of.
My question is, why? The only reason I can see for covering your eyes around a naked person is if they’ve asked you to look away because they’re not comfortable with you seeing their body (which should always be honored). But if they’re letting it all hang out there on purpose, who cares? Treat them like you would any clothed person. If you can wrap your mind around that, it becomes so much less awkward and no longer taboo.
When traveling in England earlier this year, I witnessed about fifty naked people on bicycles zooming down the streets of Canterbury. My first impulse was to avert my eyes, like some others were doing, but instead, I reminded myself that they were just bodies. Nothing to be afraid of. So I watched them on purpose. The more I looked at their bodies, the more normal they seemed. It legitimately didn’t bother me that I was surrounded by all these naked people. It was awesome.
I feel like Miley is challenging this social norm, and I think she’s doing it on purpose. She knows how weird people get around nudity and she’s decided it’s bullshit. I loved watching her on Jimmy Kimmel recently because while she’s trying to continue with the show, Kimmel can’t get over how much of her breasts are showing. He comes off as childish. She just treats her exposed breasts like a normal thing, which is what they should be
This means a lot to me personally because of how many years I spent ashamed of my body. Once puberty hit, I hid myself in long pants and oversized sweaters because I didn’t like how I looked. I wasn’t comfortable in my skin, and I specifically hated my arms, stomach, and thighs. Skirts, shorts, and dresses were out of the question unless I wore tights and a jacket. For visits to the beach, I donned a one-piece bathing suit that I quickly covered with a T-shirt and shorts. I was damn stubborn about it, too. I lived in Southern California, for crying out loud, and I always refused to take off my sweater, no matter how hot I was.
Women, or people perceived as women, are not helped through this process by school dress codes. My shame was encouraged by dress codes proclaiming that tank tops and skirts higher than the knee would sexually arouse my male peers and “give people the wrong idea.” Not only was I uncomfortable with showing my body because of how it looked, but I also thought, “I don’t want to seem like one of those types of girls. I want people to think I’m dignified. I don’t want people to think I’m a slut.”
Dress codes were teaching me that certain parts of my body were wrong. They were teaching me to look down on other girls who chose to show those parts of themselves, to see them as undignified, to assume that these girls didn’t respect themselves. Dress codes were teaching me that as long as I was not like them, as long as I was a good girl and covered myself, people would approve of me, and I would be allowed to approve of myself.
Fast-forward to now. Around the time college started, I tried shorts without tights and dresses without jackets. Last year, I bought my first crop top, and now I own several. Every time I walk outside wearing a crop top and shorts, like I did today, I feel so empowered. I feel proud of my body and excited to show it off. That doesn’t mean I’m comfortable walking around nude–I’m personally too modest for that–but I will champion and respect anyone who wants to do so. I admire people, like Miley, who can do that.
So yeah, come to me with your complaints about Miley’s cultural appropriation problem. I will agree with you. But please don’t gripe about how naked she is and expect me to nod my head along with you. As far as I’m concerned, Miley can dress however the hell she wants. I hope we as a society eventually reach a point where the naked human body is no longer stigmatized and people aren’t encouraged to be ashamed of them.
*Avatar by Charlavail