These headlines are everywhere.
“Sean Penn and Robin Wright’s model daughter Dylan flaunts her bikini body while vacationing with new boyfriend.”
In that last one, from the Daily Mail, Klum was technically wearing a bikini, but it was covered by a sarong in a series of pictures in which she did not appear to know she was being photographed. Her “flaunting” consisted of: 1) Monitoring her kids as they splashed around a pool. 2) Letting her son pretend to push her in. 3) Lugging around a giant blow-up float shaped like a fish.
This is not “flaunting” a body. This is “having” a body — an immutable state that all of us who are not incorporeal brains in jars must deal with.
What was Lady Gaga doing to flaunt her body? Swimming and taking selfies with her boyfriend. Dylan Penn? Unpacking water bottles from a canvas bag. How was Katy Perry flaunting her Katy Perryness? By wearing dark sunglasses and a giant floppy hat.
Sometimes the stars are apparently flaunting their bodies even when they’ve gone to great lengths to hide them:
“Jennifer Lawrence flaunted her fit figure while relaxing on a yacht in the Bahamas,” read the caption of a PopSugar photo, in which the Oscar-winning star, still dripping from a swim, chatted with a friend.
The woman got on a private boat in the middle of the sea — a popular refuge for paparazzi-chased celebrities — where she left her hair uncombed, looked away from the camera, and dared to go swimming in something designed for swimming. This could only have been less “flaunting” if she’d swaddled herself in a Hamburglar costume before diving in.
So, there are your choices, Jennifer Lawrence: Either be accused of flaunting, or drown.
The trouble with “flaunting” — which means, by the way, either “dressing or behaving in a provocative way” or “displaying something ostentatiously in order to provoke envy” — is that it implies everything women do is sexual. Designed to conjure lust. Jennifer Garner “flaunted her toned figure” when she took her son for a walk, but when her ex and co-parent Ben Affleck was himself photographed in a bathing suit, the New Yorker published a melancholy essay comparing him to “a defeated Roman senator,” or an early-19th-century oil painting.
(And, sure, we could Google our way toward a paparazzi shot of Zac Efron “flaunting” his abs on the set of the “Baywatch” remake — but the fact that the phrase “flaunted his body” gets about 17,000 search hits, and “flaunted her body” gets 378,000 implies this is a way we talk mostly about women, not men.)
The other trouble with “flaunting” is the allusion to purposeful teasing. As if it’s something egotistical women do to taunt the opposite sex by showing off what men can’t have. As if conspiring hordes of attractive ladies wake up, throw some Goldfish crackers and SPF 50 in a straw tote, and then head to the Outer Banks just so they can lure in men, then reject them.
Truly, this woman just wants to eat her snack and finish reading “The Woman in the Window.” Truly, she’d just as soon do it away from the public eye, but she doesn’t have an ocean on her back patio.
As the past 10 months have made clear, women and men can perceive interactions in very different ways, and the misuse of “flaunting” does not help clarify things.
“Jenna Dewan is summer chic as she flaunts her fabulous figure,” blared the Daily Mail last week. The actress wasn’t even in a bikini for that one. She was waiting for a flight at the airport.
“Hilary Duff flaunts her baby bump while walking with a friend,” it blared again in July.
Flaunting a baby bump! The nerve! Doesn’t Duff know she’s supposed to leave that bump at home and/or hibernate in a Snuggie in her living room until the kid is 12?
I wish magazines wouldn’t do this. I wrote to several of them. I wrote multiple times to multiple staffers at three of the biggest offenders — Us Weekly, PopSugar, the Daily Mail — asking to hear more about why they do this.
“We feel ‘flaunt’ exudes confidence,” a representative from PopSugar wrote back. “Our use in the specific cases you mention suggests that the bikini wearers feel great about themselves and are comfortable in their own skin. No word is sacred, however, and if we feel the word becomes completely stale or outdated, or insulting, or offensive, it will be pulled in a heartbeat.”
Pull it, PopSugar. Do it.
The other sites didn’t respond. But while I was writing this paragraph, I got a news alert: “Ariel Winter flaunts her assets,” the Daily Mail headline read, as the “Modern Family” star appeared to walk to her car.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.