I always get a rush of excitement from news that advances women’s empowerment, and such was the case when I read the New York Times coverage of the 2016 Pirelli calendar, which features well-respected, career-driven women from business and entertainment, rather than the usual artful shots of barely clad supermodels. It wasn’t until further reflection on this shift that I realized that the calendar is more of a setback than a progression, with the unfortunate message that women can be either smart or sexy—but not both.
The “empowered” women photographer Annie Leibovitz chose include a muscular Serena Williams, Patti Smith as an androgynous artist, and most notably a nude Amy Schumer, imperfections on display as she hunches forward and allows her stomach to roll over.
These women were photographed with good intentions and show the many hats a modern woman wears besides “bombshell,” but it was misguided to ignore any sexual attractiveness or femininity they possess. “Conventionally unattractive because they’re too busy being smart, athletic, and creative,” is the theme of this coming year’s calendar. Since when is that women “having it all?”
We Don’t Have to Deny Beauty to Express Brains
In 2016, acknowledging that women can be successful, rich, and intelligent isn’t groundbreaking for the feminist movement. As a millennial woman, I know and have heard of hundreds of such women, to the point where it no longer fazes me, as it shouldn’t. Where we fail to progress is allowing women to blur the lines between smart and beautiful, and providing them endless opportunities to be both.
A photo of Schumer showcasing her at her “best” in terms of stereotypical female beauty wouldn’t make her any less genius at comedy, and wouldn’t discredit the strides she’s made towards women being open and brutally honest about sex and millennial relationships. Eradicating her sex appeal to prove that she’s important and accomplished doesn’t empower her, it pigeonholes her.
The calendar also, sadly, still sends the message to women that only model-status beauty deserves to be celebrated. Can you imagine the invitation some of these women received: “We’re making the Pirelli calendar unsexy this year, and we want YOU to be in it!” These women have husbands, boyfriends, and friends who think they’re beautiful and sexy, yet the creatives who dreamt up this photoshoot meant to label them as “smart but unattractive.”
Beautiful Women Contribute to Society, Too
On the other side of the coin, who decided that the models featured in past years are nothing more than pretty faces? Surely Gisele’s Forbes list-topping income and Miranda Kerr’s company Kora Beauty can compete with the accomplishments of the intellectual women chosen for the 2016 calendar. Was supermodel Karlie Kloss, who provides meals to schoolchildren with Karlie’s Kookies and encourages women to get degrees in computer sciences with Kode With Karlie, just too pretty to be considered a champion for women’s empowerment?
The 2016 calendar does feature its token model, Natalia Vodianova, whose career longevity, role as a mother, and work as a philanthropist definitely give her “empowered woman” status. She looks lovely in her photograph, with ethereal good looks draped in a robe, her child on her hip. No stomach rolls or stretch marks shown here! I’m left wondering why the sole model in the calendar is also the only semi-nude subject to take a more feminine, sensual portrait. It’s like the creators of this issue decided they needed to include at least one model, but in doing so, further emphasized that only stereotypically pretty women like Vodianova can take a pretty picture.
I think the Pirelli calendar missed its chance to make a true mark on the timeline of progress for women. Sure, its disembark from the pin-ups of calendars past made a media splash, but highlighting women with successful careers and physical flaws is no groundbreaking venture. In standing up for women’s intellect, it hindered their femininity, and the two are not mutually exclusive.
Lipstick doesn’t mean she’s not a feminist, and wearing Spanx now and then doesn’t mean she’s not liberated. Women need more encouragement that it’s okay to shine the best they can in both realms. Just as the feminist movement taught us that women don’t have to dumb themselves down to be pretty, now it needs to stress that natural beauty doesn’t take away from one’s intelligence.