Calendar Girls: Sexification Strikes Yet Another Serious Health Condition

[Author’s note: I’d been meaning to submit this piece somewhere since earlier this year, but never got around to it. I know we’re almost finished with 2009–so focusing on a charity calendar may seem a bit old meme, at least in internet time–but some of the issues that this campaign raises are, as they say, timeless.]

When the words “chronic pain condition” come to mind, not many people can name a charitable project that is trying to raise awareness while also dovetailing nicely with current mainstream standards of beauty. British former model Bianca Embley has set out to change this, at least in the UK. After a work-related accident that resulted in a diagnosis of severe fibromyalgia, Embley was left unable to work. According to her website, Embley “aim[s] to raise awareness of Fibromyalgia, specifically in the press and media, but also by supporting awareness campaigns through UK Fibromyalgia charities and organizations” with the rather risqué Polka Dot Gals 2009 Calendar [NSFW]—a 12-month compendium of artistic nude and nearly-nude portraits of female models, including one who, the website crows, has posed for such illustrious publications as Maxim and Playboy. All of the photographs make use of the organization’s official colors (black polka dots on a yellow background) in various creative ways. The calendar and its photos have garnered a fair amount of press coverage in Great Britain, in addition to quite a few celebrity endorsements. While this project’s goal is certainly one that means well, the project also brings questions of conventional female beauty, its marketability, and intended audience to the fore.

The Polka Dot Gals project seems to have an almost-exclusive focus on a very specific type of beauty that’s almost a Feminism 101 cliché: the young, white, thin, fully made-up and free of body hair paragon of femininity that is so overexposed in modern consumer culture, advertising and—dare I say it—pornography. As many a feminist activist has warned us, this type of “beauty” sells; at the same time, it is this sort of representation of female beauty that feminists have decried since the 1970s.

However, what makes this criticism more complicated is that Embley herself posed for the calendar, and though she may appear able-bodied in these images, she is not. The photographs that feature Embley have her posed [link goes to an article that appeared in The Sun; NSFW] in ways that suggest that she is able-bodied, at least in part; in one shot, she stands fully nude, her back to the camera, as she clutches a martini glass in one hand and her cane in the other. Taken out of context, this pose does not seem to allude to her condition in an obvious way—and the photograph, in fact, looks strikingly similar to many soft-core images that have come before it. The message seems to be twofold: 1) Women with chronic illnesses can still be sexy, albeit in ways that are approved and encouraged by the culturally sanctioned gold standard of sexualized, “feminine” display; and 2) This sexiness can be channeled into photographs for public display and consumption, so long as the goal is to “raise awareness” of chronic illness and disability.

A few of the poses struck by these ostensibly well-meaning calendar girls don’t seem to have much to do with the condition, or with disability, at all: former Playboy model Danni Wells, in her photo, wears both a coquettish smirk and a yellow and black polka-dot ribbon that (just barely) covers her naked body. Were it not connected with Embley’s campaign, the image could plausibly be a banner ad for a porn website. Wells’s personal stake in the campaign stems from the fact that her grandmother lives with fibromyalgia. (One might wonder how Wells’s grandmother feels about her granddaughter’s participation in the project, especially given the nature of the images that make up the calendar.)

Such images bring to mind the question of intended audience; according to the website, a “portion of the profits” will go toward raising awareness of the condition in the UK, which begs the question of who, exactly, might purchase this calendar. The fact that the calendar is full of photographs that, by and large, seem designed to appeal to a heterosexual and possibly able-bodied male audience, is obviously problematic in a feminist sense. Given that fibromyalgia is a very gender-skewed condition (the ratio of females to males with the condition—at least within the US—is nearly 10 to 1), it appears that projects which aim to raise awareness of the condition in new and interesting ways have been a long time coming. The goals of the Polka Dot Gals are admirable, and the calendar may bring some much-needed attention to a condition that lacks a public face, but the project’s uncritical reproduction of the white, attractive and (seemingly) able-bodied female body as body-on-permanent-display—no matter if the body in question is wrought with constant pain and fatigue—is still troubling.


  1. The message seems to be twofold: 1) Women with chronic illnesses can still be sexy, albeit in ways that are approved and encouraged by the culturally sanctioned gold standard of sexualized, “feminine” display; and 2) This sexiness can be channeled into photographs for public display and consumption, so long as the goal is to “raise awareness” of chronic illness and disability.

    Well done. Really well broken down.

    (Thought I would get the comments going w/ some love. People click through when they see comments. “Oh! What did that person say?”)

  2. This is an interesting variation on the “cause calendar” theme; usually, people involved in the cause are featured in the calendar. Breast cancer cancers feature breast cancer survivors, fire/ems calenders feature ems personnel, and so forth.

    But it seems like here, some of the people involved did not have the disability the calendar was raising funds for, or were tangentially associated (family members had it). This actually leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth beyond the usual bitter taste such things leave me with: Because it erases the people with the actual disability.

    As usual. It’s about “advocating for” people with disabilities, instead of, say allowing people with disabilities to pose/advocate for themselves. If they felt like the calendar would sell better with women who are conventionally attractive, could they have at least TRIED to find women who met those criteria who are disabled in some way, even if they don’t have fibro? Could we have centered the calendar on disability, since it’s about disability, rather than on naked women?
    .-= meloukhia´s last blog ..How To Evaluate A Source of Information =-.

  3. It would have been a more interesting project if the photos had been of the broader range of persons with fibromyalgia syndrome / myalgic encephalomyelitis (yes the Beauty Standard-approved Ms. Embley but also older persons, fat people, people of color, queer and trans and intersex and asexual) asserting their right to be perceived as beautiful and desirable (if being desired is, for them, a positive quality) and not just broken. And photographed in poses that placed as little stress on the models as possible rather than the usual sort of cheesecake poses — they were a lot of work the last time I tried holding them. There probably aren’t many people with FMS/ME in the modeling world but there are plenty outside of it and it wouldn’t be that much work to find some willing to participate in a respectful, artistic awareness project.

    Of course my calendar concept probably wouldn’t have sold as well, not catering directly to the so-coddled male gaze.

  4. I’ve never understood these calendars, and I don’t assume that “sex sells” since my own research on film content shows that it’s a significant negative in film.

    Instead of giving us sex and nudity, why not feature disabled women doing amazing things (e.g. being athletic or fashionable)? Many of us can do amazing things and are not disabled across the board. I think that would be a lot more fun.
    .-= Anemone´s last blog ..Dissociation and denial (trigger warning) =-.

  5. I don’t understand this calendar, or calendars like these, at all. For one thing, it completely erases the disability that they are trying to raise awareness/money for. And then it also objectifies and sexualizes women. You know, it is possible to have a beautiful calendar that highlights disability issues without women taking off their clothes and still having them be seen as empowered or beautiful or what have you (since that what it SEEMS the calendar wanted to do in reading the other articles about it).

  6. See, now, I want kaninchenzero’s calendar. That would be awesome.

    The Polka Dot Girls calendar reminds me of the RethinkingAutism campaign. The idea behind it is basically, “If Jenny McCarthy can use sex to peddle pseudoscience, we’ll use sex to talk about real science and respect for autistic people!” But, as Ed at The Standard Review points out in Not Rethinking Autism:

    There is nothing new about having other people who display the achievement of meeting all the bigoted and prejudiced standards speak for those who don’t. This is “about us without us” at its worst.

    This kind of thing is what frustrates me about many awareness/face of __ campaigns. Because there’s this sense that the public can only accept the people who are “just like you!,” as if civil rights can be won with a trickle. What we really need to do is break the dam down.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  7. Tera, thanks for the link to that article.

    K0, I want to be in your calendar. 😀 And thanks everyone else for your comments! I am glad that this piece was clear and, apparently, thought-provoking.

  8. Yeah… a lot of fail there. The only real value the calendar would have (apart from the MONEY raised) would be challenging the idea that all disability is visible… or maybe challenging the idea that a woman has to be considered like you’d consider purchasing a prize cow, in the prime of “health” to be considered sexually eligible.

    Except that not everyone in the calendar is disabled… so that dilutes that challenge RIGHT THERE. I also feel that for some men, whether a chick is crippled with pain is irrelevant for how fuckable she is – she just has to look HOT.

    Not much of a challenge to what is considered attractive here.

  9. Speaking of calendars and oppressive cultural notions of beauty, Queen Emily has a post on Questioning Transphobia about a calander in Spain wherein trans women pose as the Virgin Mary and the pushback: Trans Virgin Marys and other such heresies.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  10. From the article: “It causes chronic pain throughout the body, more painful than chronic arthritis.”

    Trying to keep my language toned down, but… WHAT? You cannot compare one debilitatingly painful condition with another, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU DO NOT HAVE THAT CONDITION YOURSELF!! (And when you DO have both conditions, it’s even odds which one is causing any particular pain in the first place!)

    I just… buh…. NO. (And hey, I managed not to use any swear words!)

  11. Part of my problem with this sort of calendar is that it leaves women with the disability who aren’t Beauty 2K compliant feeling less sexy than ever.

    In addition, of course, to all the objections already raised.
    .-= Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.´s last blog ..9/11 still killing =-.