According to a Cosmopolitan Magazine Survey (admittedly not the most academic source) more than 60% of millennials have taken a nude photo of themselves at some point. Less than 30% regret it. You might be forgiven for thinking that in 2015, we’re all a lot more comfortable with our bodies. I’m not sure if this is true. As a female friend points out “Now people probably freak out about their bodies more because they know they have to send nude photos.”
Whether or not we’re actually becoming more comfortable or more confident in our own skin, it’s undeniable that the range of body types and looks that we consider beautiful has shifted and broadened across the last few decades. People like Missy Suicide, CEO and co-founder of the website SuicideGirls, undeniably has had a hand in this shift.
In 2001, Missy tells me, women only had two choices when it came to beauty: stick-thin blonde Kate Moss or silicone-enhanced blonde Pamela Anderson. This two-size-fits-all world, reinforced in all cultural media, did not reflect what she saw when she looked around her hometown of Portland, Oregon.
So she founded SuicideGirls.com, an adult lifestyle website featuring alternative, tattooed, pin-up girls, to provide a space where people could celebrate a different type of beauty.
That the site features nude images is, according to Missy, an important declaration. “[The women on the site] are nude and proud of their bodies,” she says, ”and why shouldn’t they be? The female nude body is the most celebrated subject matter in all of art history. If you go into any art museum you’re going to see the same level of nudity that you see on Suicide Girls.”
What started as a local project in the Pacific-Northwest quickly grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Every year, over thirty thousand women from every continent (including Antarctica) submit applications to become Suicide Girls. While there are only around three thousand actual Suicide Girls, there are hundreds of thousands of hopefuls. Many of my friends, when surveyed, knew one or two people who’d applied to be on the site.
“Suicide Girls is an aspirational brand,” says Missy “It’s a brand that women identify with strongly and the confidence our models project is highly attractive.” This seems to be borne out by the website’s business model. The models are only paid a $500 fee when their photoset makes it to the front page as a “Set of the Day.” Most of the hopefuls seem to apply less as a source of income and more as a means of self-expression and as a way to be part of a like-minded community.
This is no dumb-luck. Missy has worked from day one to build a community that is vital, energetic and most importantly, supportive. Part of this was encouraging models and users alike to share the ups and downs of their daily lives. Missy encourages models to blog often, assigning regular “Blog Homework” assignments. While it might seem obvious today that a website could make money by encouraging its users to share the humdrum minutia of their lives, in 2001, this was a radical notion.
Back then, the idea that any woman would want to share her life online was more radical than the idea she would share naked photos. Missy was told over and over again that it would never work, that people were never going to blog about what they had for breakfast, or what music they were listening to. “People were so paranoid about the negatives,” says Missy, “that they were not as open to the positives of meeting people and having these connections.” The idea of sharing online was so new that Missy tells me she used to transcribe blog entries for models that didn’t have Internet connections.
Today the site is a hive of social activity, much of it decidedly non-erotic. Over its fourteen year lifespan, the site has brought together an eclectic mix of men and women with interests as diverse as cooking, Japanese animation, vintage cars, and UK politics. And this melting pot has created innumerable real human connections. Missy points to thousands of marriages, babies, and business partnerships that have come out of the community.
In every way it can, the site tries to bring people together offline as well as online. Its most recent endeavor: a pop-culture themed burlesque tour, choreographed by industry veteran Manwé Sauls-Addison, who has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Beyonce. The show “Blackheart Burlesque,” is an irreverent, sexy, and silly send up of pop-culture. Vice magazine called it “Comicon meets burlesque nerd orgy.” At its core, says Missy, it’s a celebration of a diverse and talented group of dancers who are confident and comfortable with their bodies.
To give you an example of what this means in practice, Missy describes one of the dances as “A ‘Planet of the Apes’ number with girls in silver bikinis and monkey masks, and one girl in a Barbarella-style silver swimsuit with the bowl-head space helmet, coming out to Disclosure’s ‘When A Fire Starts to Burn,’ and the music from The Simpson’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ opera during the talking parts.”
Today, celebrating the beauty of woman with tattoos or pink hair may seem a little needless. These traditionally punk/alternative motifs have gradually begun to filter into the mainstream. Critics of the website might say it has become too mainstream, and take issue with its dearth of non-white or plus-sized models. (Something the site is purportedly attempting to correct.) But it’s easy to forget that without the work of disruptive entrepreneurs like Missy Suicide, we might still be stuck with Pamela Anderson 6.0.
The SuicideGirls: Blackheart Burlesque tour will be stopping by Philadelphia at the Union Transfer on Tuesday, October 20th. Tickets are available here